How lessons learnt from the 2021 Emirates Airline Festival of Literature could transform future events

The event this year presented unforeseen challenges but also a learning experience for the coming years, says festival director Ahlam Bolooki

Duba, United Arab Emirates -  Book enthusiasts checking out books from different authors at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature at InterContentinental Hotel Dubai Festival City.  Leslie Pableo for The National for Razmig's story
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Nimble planning is what helped the team behind the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature persevere through one of its most difficult years.

Not only did this attention to detail help them pull off a successful event mid-pandemic, but it also sparked several ideas that may be used in future iterations of the festival. Organisers say these changes could inspire more literary heavyweights to take part in the event and boost global participation like never before.

'Literature is a basic human right'

At first, the challenges and uncertainties brought on by Covid-19 seemed insurmountable. It wasn’t even clear if the festival would be able to take place, and whether it could be held safely in a physical setting or had to go completely virtual. Travel restrictions and social distancing guidelines changed on a daily basis. What if scheduled authors were unable to come? What if another lockdown was declared?

Despite all of these challenges, festival director Ahlam Bolooki says they were determined to see the event happen. The festival could provide a hint of much-needed normalcy for many, but it could also provide a platform for people to deliberate on issues made even more pressing in light of the pandemic.

Ahlam Bolooki
Emirates Airline Festival of Literature director Ahlam Bolooki. Courtesy Emirates Literature Foundation

“Literature is a basic human right,” she says. “We really believe in the importance of what we do and, no matter what challenges we faced, we wanted to keep going on.”

As we now know, the festival did eventually take place. It was held across three weekends and in three different venues. It began on January 29 at the Jameel Arts Centre, before moving on to its traditional home at the InterContinental Dubai Festival City, followed by its conclusion on February 13 at Alserkal Avenue.

Bolooki says the decision to hold the festival across different locations was a way of opening it up to the local community. “Spreading out is definitely something we thought worked really well this year and are open to considering more of in the future,” she says.

As a way of ensuring social distancing measures and the safety of attendees, a large portion of the festival was also held outdoors. At InterContinental Dubai Festival City, a number of pavilions were set up on the grassy fields by the hotel, where panel discussions, as well as online author talks, took place.

“We made those changes within the last two weeks,” Bolooki explains. “We had to take decisions that would enable us to hold the festival safely.”

Of course, we missed the book signings this year, but otherwise it was as good as it could've been

This decision might have a long-lasting impact, however. "That was one of my favourite things this year," Bolooki says. "Especially at the InterContinental Hotel, sitting in the pavilions outside, watching a session with the Dubai Creek and the Mohammed Bin Rashid Library on my right. It felt like a dream. It was really beautiful. Holding the festival outdoors is something that I'd love to keep for next year."

In a way, the pandemic also showed organisers what was possible from a technological standpoint. “We made sure we had the big LED screens during the virtual talks,” Bolooki says. “No matter where you were sitting, it felt like you were right there in the front row.”

High-profile figures such as Malala Yousafzai and Elif Shafak gave talks this way, appearing via screen and answering questions from the audience.

“Of course, we missed the book signings this year, but otherwise it was as good as it could’ve been,” Bolooki adds.

The online author talks also helped audiences from all over the world participate in the festival. Bolooki says the organising team is currently working on compiling streaming statistics, which will be released soon.

“One important outcome of the festival is that it showed us what’s possible. So many times, we’ve lost the opportunity to host big-name authors because of their clashing schedules. Now, through the technology, they could be up close and personal even if they can’t fly in.”

While virtual appearances are viable, Bolooki says she would still prefer if authors can physically attend the festival.

“Hopefully, we’ll be at a place next year where enough of us are vaccinated and we can have more authors attend in person,” she says.

The 2021 event may have brought unforeseen challenges, but it also presented “a huge learning experience that we will certainly carry forward in future years”, she adds.