Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2021 might not be as busy, but it's every bit as engaging

The National reports from the event, which looks very different this year because of the pandemic

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The 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is in full swing, having opened to the public last Friday.

It opened at the Jameel Arts Centre last weekend, and now it has returned to the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, where past iterations of the event have been held, before it wraps up at Alserkal Avenue on Saturday, February 13.

We wanted to show everyone that it is still possible to hold an engaging festival even with the pandemic

While there has been the usual buzz surrounding the annual literary event, the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is noticeable. The space is devoid of its effervescence. There are no children milling about with bags of books in tow. There are no groups of people unfurling leaflets, trying to ascertain how and when to get to their next session. There are no snaking queues of bibliophiles waiting to get titles signed by their favourite authors.

In fact, as I walk into the hotel, I couldn’t help but think that, had it not been for the large lime-green banners flanking the entrance, I perhaps wouldn't have known there was a festival happening here at all.

Of course, that's the case with any festival being held this early in 2021. As the pandemic continues, event organisers all over the world have had to adapt to ever-changing rules to ensure visitor safety.

New outdoor pavilions

Downstairs, there's an immediate change in atmosphere. As always, Magrudy’s has set up an ad-hoc bookstore opposite the hotel’s ballrooms, where the author sessions have usually been held in past years. Visitors, though scattered and few, are poring over what's on sale.

A festival volunteer, wearing the signature aubergine-hued vest, approaches me to ask which session I’m planning on attending. As I've still got half an hour to kill, I tell her I'm simply browsing. “Well, you should definitely check out the set-up outside,” she replies, pointing to the automatic glass doors.

I head outside, to the grassy field by the hotel, where, for the first time in the festival's history, numerous pavilions can be found. This is where the virtual and in-person author sessions are now being hosted. Meanwhile, author workshops with limited capacity are being held in the ballrooms.

In the pavilions, the seats, all of which have been pre-assigned, are fitted with white and black cloths, marking where people can sit in order to maintain social distancing measures. There is also a four-metre distance between audience seats and the podium, where moderators are sat.

"It's a little bit different this year," festival director Ahlam Bolooki tells The National. "The venues are all outdoor and we had to make that change not very long before the festival opened."

A hybrid approach

Bolooki says the organising team has kept a close eye on any new developments regarding the pandemic, and only decided to go ahead with the event after they could guarantee the safety of its visitors, while also catering to those who choose to attend virtually.

The behind-the-scenes organisation this year has been about adapting quickly and effectively, she says. The team has long been debating whether to hold an entirely virtual or physical event, or to adopt a hybrid approach.

“I’m glad we went for a hybrid approach,” she says. “We wanted to show everyone that it is still possible to hold an engaging festival even with the pandemic. We were one of the last festivals to be held last year before the pandemic and have been one of the first to start back up again.”

In order to go ahead, several changes to the format have been made on top of moving it outdoors.

Book signings, for example, have been cancelled, as they pose a safety hazard to both guests queuing up and the author.

“Our moderators all have to have negative PCR tests up to 48 hours before each session,” Bolooki explains.

Sessions have also been scheduled in a way that prevents large groups from entering and exiting the venue at once. Organisers also opted not to host school trips and instead deliver festival content directly to students through schools.

“Our education programme is going ahead virtually,” Bolooki says. “We’ve filmed four English and four Arabic sessions, all of which are available through a digital portal, which students can access whether they are learning from home or in a classroom. It’s also available for two weeks, which gives them more flexibility to watch it when it’s available.”

Digital passes for online events are also available, as this year marks the first time the festival has live-streamed author talks and panel discussions. “We wanted to give people the choice of either attending the festival in person or to watch it from the comfort of their home.”

Going online has also helped the festival reach a global audience. "We're seeing international viewers tune in to the festival, which is amazing," Bolooki says.

While the 2021 event may not be as bustling in its physical form, festival-goer Zakia Al Jayousi, a paediatrician living in Dubai, says it is as thought-provoking and engaging as ever.

“It was expected that the pandemic was going to effect the turn-out,” she says. “People are worried about the coronavirus and with everything going on, it is easy to forget about the things they are interested in or passionate about.”

However, Al Jayousi says it is evident that organisers have meticulously planned the event to ensure people’s safety while still making sure there is something for everyone.

“Maybe it is not financially rewarding for them,” she says, “but we need cultural events such as this one. I’m happy they went ahead with the festival. The author line-up has been incredible.”