Hay Festival Abu Dhabi officially opens as a 'celebration of Arab and global culture'

Hay Festival director Peter Florence paid tribute to the UAE for allowing the festival to exist, saying it is 'an extraordinary gift, and an amazing open platform'

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Bibliophiles, students, and publishers flocked to Manarat Al Saadiyat for the lively opening of the first Hay Festival Abu Dhabi on Tuesday.

The festival, which runs until Friday, will host a range of international writers and artists over the next four days, with a line-up of more than 60 writers including Syrian poet Adonis and Man Booker Prize winner Bernardine Evaristo. The Hay Festival began in Wales in 1987, and now operates out of major cities around the world.

Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, Minister of Tolerance, opened the festival with a speech that praised it as a "celebration of Arab and global culture”.

“The Hay Festival Abu Dhabi gives us a marvelous opportunity to relate to one another in a way that will have a profound impact on our communities and on our world,” Sheikh Nahyan said.

He said the next four days were about celebrating "international dialogue and global understanding".
"It is an expression of our collective hopes and aspirations for a better, more knowledgeable, tolerant and prosperous future for the world.

“It is our goal to really make this festival an opportunity for all participants and visitors to make useful connections that will grow and flourish for many years to come."

Peter Florence, director of the Hay Festival, paid tribute to the UAE for developing at "warp speed", and to Abu Dhabi as a "city conjured out of sand, this nation forged by women and men of extraordinary vision.

“This plural, diverse society has concentrated thousands of years of development into three generations,” he said.

Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates - An abstract dance performance at the opening ceremony of the Hay Festival in Manarat, Al Saadiyat. Khushnum Bhandari for The National
The dance performance at the opening ceremony of the Hay Festival at Manarat Al Saadiyat. Khushnum Bhandari for The National

He thanked the country's leadership for inviting the Hay Festival here, saying it was "an extraordinary gift, and an amazing open platform.

“You are welcoming us here to speak, play, argue, dissent, to come at things from every angle."

More than 20 nationalities and seven languages will be represented at the festival, providing a platform for some of the world’s finest writers and thinkers to discuss the state of literature and its future.

The opening ceremony was followed by a performance by leading UK contemporary dance troupe, 2Faced Dance Company. The performance, titled Power, mixed elements of break-dancing alongside acrobatics and was clearly popular with the gathered crowd.

“It was a great performance,” Lady Dayane Barake, a law student at Sorbonne University Abu Dhabi, said. “We’re going to be here all day. My friends and I will try and go to as many sessions as we can.”

Barake said she was also going to try and bring her mother to the Marcel Khalife concert on Thursday.

“She’s a big fan. Let’s hope there are still tickets left.”

The opening talk 

The first talk was with historian and The New Silk Roads author Peter Frankopan, who sat down with festival director Peter Florence and didn't hold back, touching upon human and gender rights, politics and the nuances of history.

He spoke about the complexity of the “matrix” of the silk roads, China's belt and road initiative and the rich history of Arab literature.

On literature, he called the writing from the 9th and 10th century in the Arab world “beautiful, experimental, curious and engaged,” adding that he is interested in, as a historian, "steering away from what other people are looking at". He pointed out that, of history faculties in the UK, around 90 per cent study the west.

Of China's Belt and Road initiative, he said there are clearly multiple motivations behind China's actions, and that US president Donald Trump's rhetoric and the fact Europe is "running around like a chicken without a head" only galvanises China's message.

"The way in which the US wants to shape the world in its own image hasn't worked out that well. China recognises that... Trump says, 'let's buy Greenland'... he says 'we think that Iraq should be able to govern its own affairs, but it's not at that point right now'.

"The US is actually much smarter and more productive than that, but having a president that talks that way galvanises Asian states to say, 'let's work together'. That is forging a new world."

On that note, he said one major lesson of history is that the world is so changeable, "all empires crumble. You have your moment in the sun, and then it goes."

Cities rising quickly, as have Abu Dhabi and Dubai, is far from a new phenomenon, he pointed out. "Cities rise in response to needs. Cities that can't deliver die. Those that do, blossom."

Events for students

Anna Bedrozova, a mother to two teenage boys, planned to head along to author Jenny Valentine's event Talking to Teenagers, with her sons in tow.

She would also attend several sessions throughout the week. “I just got my tickets to the Marcus du Sautoy session. His talk on the mathematician’s journey through symmetry seems really interesting.”

A number of school’s had organised student trips to Manarat Al Saadiyat today, too. Tom Wang, who teaches mathematics at Al Ghazali School, said he had brought more than thirty students for the opening of the festival.

“The students started off the day by drawing pictures at an event in The Theatre hall,” Wang said. “They had a lot of fun.”

Wang said it was important to bring students to such events. “It gives them a chance to engage with the arts and be exposed to new ideas.”

The Hay Festival Abu Dhabi recently launched its Programme for Schools and University Outreach activities, for which it has teamed up with literary organisations, universities and schools across the city and the Emirate of Abu Dhabi. This event is intended to "inspire and entertain thousands of local students" across three days during the festival.