A guide to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2019: the top 15 things to do

From Ian Rankin to Jane Hawking, there’s something for everyone at this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

From left: Authors Kate Pankhurst, Jennifer Palmieri, Jane Hawking and Ian Rankin will all be at this year's Emirates Festival of Literature. 
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The Emirates Airline Festival of ­Literature opens its doors again on Friday for nine days of talks and workshops from some of the most exciting writers and thinkers on the planet.

Now in its 11th year, the festival remains a joyous meeting of minds, where ideas are challenged, horizons are broadened and a love of literature is nurtured. With hundreds of speakers arriving in Dubai from all over the world, this year’s event, which runs from Friday until March 9, promises to be as inspiring as ever.

The only problem? Deciding what to go and see. There will be some authors whose talks you shouldn’t even contemplate missing – for me, that’s Ian Rankin – but don’t forget to stray off the path and seek out new experiences. Sometimes it’s the session you stumble upon by accident that stays with you.

We have scoured every inch of the programme, so allow us to guide you through its nine days of literary bliss. Here are 15 of the festival’s truly must-see events.

Women in History: Sue Nelson, Kate Pankhurst and Nicola Tallis

When: March 1 (10am-11am)

Where: Al Ras 1

Tickets: Dh75 (English with Arabic translation)

Who better to take part in a discussion about some of the women who have changed the world than Kate Pankhurst, bestselling children’s author and descendant of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst? History is too often presented as a male-dominated narrative and this session aims to right that wrong by celebrating those women whose influence on the human story should not be forgotten.

Pankhurst will be joined by Sue Nelson, author of a brilliant biography of Wally Funk, one of the first American pilots to complete the Women in Space programme, and historian Nicola Tallis, whose latest book, Elizabeth's Rival: The Tumultuous Tale of Lettice Knollys, explores how Knollys, an English noblewoman, exerted power in the turbulent courts of Elizabeth I and Charles I. 

Jane Hawking: From Fact to Film to Fiction

When: March 1 (4pm-5pm)
Where: Al Ras 2
Tickets: Dh75 (English)

Jane Hawking, the first wife of late physicist Stephen Hawking, was forced to cancel her appearance at last year's ­Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. She returns to the bill this year to tell the extraordinary story of her life with the author of A Brief History of Time, who was diagnosed with motor neurone disease at 21.

In 2014, Jane's memoir, Travelling to Infinity, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film, The Theory of Everything, starring Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones.

Lalage Snow: War Gardens

When: March 2 (10am-11am)
Where: Al Baraha 1
Tickets: Dh75 (English with Arabic translation)

It is remarkable to witness the ways in which people find hope in war. Freelance photojournalist Lalage Snow has spent much of her adult life reporting on conflicts around the world, but her wonderful book, War Gardens: A Journey Through Conflict in Search of Calm, examines something quite different: the gardens – some little more than patches; others quite grand – that people have tended, even as destruction rages around them. Snow reminds us that, for most people in a war zone, life simply has to go on.  

UAE – Discovery 101: Francesca Affleck and Roudha Al Marri

When: March 2 (2pm-3pm)
Where: Al Baraha 1
Tickets: Free (English with Arabic translation)

Thousands of people will visit the UAE for this festival and see Dubai's skyscrapers, colossal malls and busy roads. But there is another side to the country, which is rich with heritage and history. Francesca Affleck, author of ­Discovering the United Arab Emirates, and Roudha Al Marri, author of UAE 101: ­Stories and Cultural Learnings, take us on a journey back in time to show us the how the country was formed in 1971. A web of different cultures has quickly coalesced into the metropolis we know today. Come and experience the UAE in a completely new light.

Creative Writing Course with Jabbour Douaihy

When: March 4 (9.30am-3pm)
Where: Al Waha
Tickets: Dh800 (Arabic)

This is a quieter day at the festival, so set aside the time for a creative writing course with esteemed Lebanese writer ­Jabbour Douaihy, author of June Rain, which was nominated for the 2008 International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Douaihy will take you through his writing process and explore the merits of different subject matter and styles. How do you build characters on the page? What can you do to improve the plot?

Make sure you bring a pen and paper (or perhaps a laptop), as this is very much an interactive workshop and you will be expected to do some writing of your own. You never know, this could be the start of your creative writing journey, and next year, it will be you up on stage speaking about your wildly successful debut novel.

Desert Stanzas 2019

When: March 5 (7pm-9.30pm)
Where: Desert Camp
Tickets: Dh250 (Arabic and English)

This is always one of the highlights of the week – a series of poetry readings under the stars in the desert, alongside traditional Emirati food and music. The poets this year include Talal Aljunaibi, Afra Atiq, Zeina Hashem Beck, Frank Dullaghan and Selina Tusitala Marsh. Expect an atmosphere of quiet contemplation broken up by moments of unguarded joy and laughter. It can be very special indeed, but be sure to book early, as this event sells out quickly.

Jennifer Palmieri: Dear Madam President

When: March 7 (6pm-7pm)
Where: Al Ras 2
Tickets: Dh75 (English)

Jennifer Palmieri is Hillary Clinton's former communications director, whose book, Dear Madam President, is a call to arms for women in all walks of life to take back control. Palmieri is a first-rate public speaker, who has spent time with some of the most influential people of the century, including Clinton, Barack Obama and the late Elizabeth Edwards.

Palmieri will also be speaking in the morning (11am-12pm) as part of Youth Day. For Dh175, people aged 16+ can attend five sessions on March 7, including Dr Abdullah Al Maghlooth: The Positive Influence of Social Media (12.30pm-1.30pm), and Chris Gardner: The Pursuit of Happyness (5pm-6pm).

Ben Lyttleton: Edge

When: March 8 (10am-11am)
Where: Al Ras 3
Tickets: Dh75 (English)

If you’ve ever wondered why you keep losing in the weekly five-a-side game, you might want to get yourself along to Ben Lyttleton’s session. The journalist and football consultant shares the knowledge he has gleaned working with some of the biggest clubs in the world and illustrates how we can transfer those skills into everyday life.

Don’t be put off if football isn’t your thing, though – Lyttleton is less interested in wingbacks, midfield diamonds and the 4-4-2 formation and more into giving everyone that little edge over their peers. Just don’t tell your colleagues that you’ve got a ticket.

Ian Rankin: In a House of Lies

When: March 8 (10am-11am)
Where: Al Baraha 3
Tickets: Dh75 (English)

The Scottish crime novelist, who has sold some 30 million books worldwide, returns to the festival to discuss his latest Inspector John Rebus novel, In a House of Lies.

A lot has happened to Rebus since he first appeared in a Rankin novel in 1987, most notably that he has retired from the police force. Not that he has any intention of giving up the detective work, of course – even better, he no longer has any of those pesky constraints to contend with.

Rankin is a cracking raconteur, full of stories about Edinburgh’s underbelly and the absurdities of life as one of the world’s most successful novelists. As he told me recently in an interview for The National’s upcoming podcast, Books of My Life, “all novelists are frustrated rock stars.”

Vince Beiser: The World in a Grain

When: March 8 (6pm-7pm)
Where: Al Ras 1
Tickets: Dh75 (English with Arabic translation)

When you’re surrounded by something, it’s easy to forget just how important it is. But sand is vital to our lives. Buildings, roads, computer screens and silicon chips – none of these things would exist without sand. Journalist Vince Beiser whisks us on a trip around the world as he explains why civilisations are always built on sand.

Children’s programme

Tony De Saulles: Why Does the World Need Bees? Meet Bee Boy and Find Out!

Author of ‘Bee Boy Trilogy’ Tony De Saulles is part of the festival’s Children’s programme. Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

When: March 1 (12pm-1pm)
Where: Al Ras 3
Age: 7+

Tickets: Dh50 (English)

We know that bees, which pollinate 250,000 species of plants, are one of the most invaluable species on the planet. We also know that they are disappearing at an alarming rate because of climate change.

So, how do you make this serious subject interesting for children? Send in Tony De Saulles, of course. The illustrator of the Horrible Science series wrote the Bee Boy trilogy as a way of educating children about the dangers our planet is facing. De Saulles is an absolute pro at bringing a real sense of fun to these occasions, so expect plenty of noise, laughter and maybe even a song or two.

Joshua Seigal: Poetry and So Much More!

When: March 2 (10am-11am)
Where: Al Ras 1
Age: 8+
Tickets: Dh50 (English with Arabic translation)

The festival is a great place to introduce young people to the joys of reading. Poetry can sometimes seem like a leap too far, though. Fortunately, poet and performer Joshua Seigal has the magic code – he manages to make poetry seem like a riot.

In this interactive session, Seigal encourages everyone to have a go at making words do wonderful things. Here's a line or two from his poem, Addicted to Chicken: "I pass the chicken shop and my heart skips a beat/ I'll eat the freaky creature from the beak to the feet."

I Really Want That Unicorn: Drawing Workshop with Fabi Santiago

Chloe Crocodile creator Fabi Santiago creator will hold a drawing session for kids. Courtesy Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

When: March 8 (10am-11am)
Where: Alamwaj
Age: 4-6
Tickets: Dh100 – one child and one accompanying adult (English)

Brazilian author and illustrator Fabi Santiago creates gorgeous, colour-soaked drawings of animals, such as Chloe Crocodile and Big Sparkly Mellow Yellow Unicorn. And now she’s here to teach the UAE’s youngest residents to do it, too. Each child – sorry, adults – will create their own sparkly unicorn to take home.

The Dinoraffe: Interactive Workshop with Hessa Al Mehairi and Hala Al Bassar

When: March 8 (4pm-5pm)
Where: Al Waha
Age: 6-10
Tickets: Dh50 (Arabic and English)

Children's author and illustrator Hessa Al Mehairi joins impressionist Hala Al Bassar for a very special reading – accents and all – of The Dinoraffe, followed by a drawing workshop with Al Mehairi. The Dinoraffe, a very sweet tale about the animal kingdom, should be the perfect wind-down at the end of a long day.

Nicola Morgan: The Teenage Guide to Life Online

When: March 9 (12pm-1pm)
Where: Al Baraha 2
Age: 12+
Tickets: Dh50

Plenty of young people won’t remember a time before the internet and smartphones, or the impact they are having on our lives, from our concentration levels to our sleep patterns. British author Nicola Morgan explains why we need to be careful how we use smartphones, but also celebrates all that the internet has to offer.

Balanced and wise, without ever being preachy, Morgan is well worth listening to on this subject. This session might well nudge your teenage children into re-thinking their relationship with their mobile phones.

For more information on sessions taking place at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, and to buy tickets to
the events, visit www.emirateslitfest.com