How Isobel Abulhoul wrote the book on literature from the UAE

Ahead of the Emirates Literary Festival's return, its founder speaks about the evolution of the country's literary scene in the five decades she's lived there

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 14 DECEMBER 2016. Dubai Women Establishment held an event to celebrate the power of reading. Isobel Abulhoul, Chief Executive of the Emirates Literature Foundation and Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature discusses the importance of reading and books with Hamda Al Falasi from the Dubai Women Establishment during a public discussion forum at the Dubai Ladies Club. (Photo: Antonie Robertson/The National) ID: 31778. Journalist: Hafsa Lodi. Section: Weekend. *** Local Caption ***  AR_1412_Celebrate_Reading-13.JPG
Powered by automated translation

Writers from the Arabian Gulf, particularly female ones, are having a moment in the spotlight. Ever since Saudi Arabian Raja Alem became the first woman to jointly win the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (Ipaf) in 2011 for her classic Makkah novel The Doves’ Necklace, the international literary scene has been opening its eyes to words from women in the region.

The 2019 Man Booker International Prize win by Marilyn Booth’s translation of Sayyidat al-Qamr (Celestial Bodies) by Omani writer Jokha al-Harthi, was followed earlier this year by the Ipaf shortlist nomination of compatriot and winner of the Omani Writers' Association Prize, Bushran Khalfan, for her second novel, Dilshad. Reem Alkamali, the first Emirati writer to be nominated for the illustrious award, was also on the shortlist for her book, Rose’s Diary.

While international bibliophiles marvel at what they consider to be a novel cohort of writers, long-standing residents of the region see it differently.

“There has always been an incredibly long tradition of nabati poetry and of oral storytelling,” trustee and chief executive of the Emirates Literature Foundation Isobel Abulhoul told an online audience this week.

At a talk hosted by the Emirates Society and moderated by its chair, British MP David Jones, Abulhoul praised the late Emirati poetess Ousha bint Khalifa Al Suwaidi, a prominent cultural figure who is considered one of the finest Arabic lyricists, as one of many highly regarded wordsmiths of the Arabian Peninsula.

The Emirates' great storytellers

Favourite among the UAE’s “incredible storytellers” was, Abulhoul said, her late father-in-law, who used to regale the Cambridge-born entrepreneur with “lots and lots of fantastical stories” from when she first moved to Dubai in 1968 at the age of 18 to be with her Emirati husband.

“When my feet touched the sand on the runway on that small airport, as it was at that time, and the sky was dark, and it smelt so different, I felt like I was Alice in Arabia who arrived somewhere that has so many stories to publish,” she said.

In the half a century since that first touchdown, the co-founder of Magrudy’s bookshop chain and founding director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has created numerous spaces for readers and writers alike to share her love of literature.

It's not just Emirati literature, it's the literature of the Emirates, that is so fascinating
Isobel Abulhoul

Salha Obeid, an award-winning Emirati novelist whose work has been translated into German and who told the online audience how she used to attend the festival as “an avid reader, and more recently as a writer”, said many female writers are emerging in her country, “much more than men”.

“But at the same time, we need to find our unique voice about the things that we really want to talk about,” said Obeid, an engineering graduate, at the discussion on the evolution of literature in the UAE.

A member of the council of the Dubai Culture and Arts Authority and the Association of Emirati Women Writers, Obeid has written three collections of short stories and two novels.

For Obeid, who is also a columnist for Emirati newspaper Al Roeya, publishers’ narrow vision of the Middle East, “who still want to focus on the wars or historic eras with tents and camels”, coupled with a lack of good translators has limited the exposure of Arab works.

“They refuse sometimes to see how established we are now and how complicated we can be and how many stories we have,” she said.

Just as well that the Emirates Literature Foundation launched its own publishing house, ELF Publishing, this year in an attempt to introduce a new generation of authors from the UAE.

It’s not just external misperception that Obeid said she faces as a writer. She admitted to self-censoring her own work, even when others haven’t asked her to.

“I think women tend to do that more. I noticed that I was putting these limitations on myself so I started to be more open about what I'm writing,” said the winner of the 2016 Al Owais Award for Creative Writing.

Opening up is something the ever-developing UAE has become adept at doing during its half century of existence and is what makes the literary scene “so fascinating” to Abulhoul.

“It's not just Emirati literature, it's the literature of the Emirates, that is so fascinating because it is a melting pot of 200 nations and we live side by side, so we are constantly part of the global society,” she said.

Spreading the good word on reading

All the more fitting then, that the so-called “litrepeneur” launched a literary festival in 2009 with Emirates airline, one of the world’s largest international carriers. Held under the patronage of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President and Ruler of Dubai, the festival quickly established itself as a regional leader of its kind, offering many visiting authors — from Canada's Margaret Atwood to US thriller writer Jeffery Deaver — their first taste of the Arab world.

Now in its 15th year, the festival has brought over more than 2,000 international writers since it began and has fast established itself as a regional leader of its kind.

It’s a long way from when Abulhoul opened the first branch of what she thought would be an “educational toy shop” but that has since grown into a thriving business with more than a dozen bookshops across the UAE.

Decades of modernisation have changed the UAE's literary scene dramatically from what it was when Abulhoul arrived in Dubai three years before the formation of the country.

“Booktok” ― a TikTok channel that recommends books with the almost immediate impact of turning them into bestsellers ― is the latest phenomenon “to show the power of global social media”, said the trustee of the International Prize for Arabic fiction.

The pandemic also provided opportunities to dust off the library jackets, Abulhoul said, calling it “a great time” for reading again.

“And now they can't do without them,” she said, adding that non-fiction, particularly so-called self-help books, and anything to do with the history of the Emirates are “incredibly popular”.

It goes against the grain of traditional Emirati Bedouin culture, where regular movement meant travelling with books was unusual, and the character-limited communication of the modern online era.

“People have become much more settled, books are becoming an important part of the home and that's wonderful. So reading habits are growing … [and] bit by bit you have to keep reminding everyone of the value of literature and that if we don't read, we're not going to have any writers,” Abulhoul said.

LitFest returns with 'old friends'

Developing writing skills is a big part of Abulhoul's mandate.

As well as the education events with acclaimed international writers held throughout the year, particularly during the festival, the foundation holds popular annual competitions, including the Oxford University Press Story Writing Competition, and creative courses to encourage students to unlock their own potential in reading and writing.

Most of the authors who come here have become friends, but I also look on the books I’ve returned to time and again as old friends ... you can interpret it whatever way you like, but there's something very comfortable about old friends
Isobel Abulhoul

Launched in 2021, the Seddiqi Writers’ Fellowship First Chapter is now a flagship programme of the foundation and the only global standard writing mentorship programme in the region.

The fellowship supports 10 selected writers of fiction through initiatives that include exclusive talks with acclaimed authors, introductions to international agents, editors and publishers, and a trip to New York for special sessions at the Gotham Writers' Workshop.

Beyond the career-launching programmes, competitions on the “forgotten art” of letter-writing are there to encourage writing for the love of it, Abulhoul said.

“I think the more we can encourage non-competitive creative writing and ways to find your voice, the better. We need more of that and I think it is really important that we should all be able to write,” said Abulhoul, who sits on the boards of the Kalimat Foundation, a non-profit promoting children’s rights to access books, and the Mohammed bin Rashid library.

Celebrating the journey to its 15th anniversary edition, the theme for the Emirates LitFest 2023 will be Old Friends, a nod to the many friendships that have emerged on and off the stages at the annual event.

“Most of the authors who come here have become friends, but I also look on the books I’ve returned to time and again as old friends, I look on pets as old friends, I look on teddy bears as old friends, I look at new friends that become old friends, so you can interpret it whatever way you like, but there's something very comfortable about old friends,” Abulhoul said.

The theme will be woven throughout the festival programme, which will feature about 250 authors this year, a speaker line-up Abulhoul said will be the biggest yet.

The festival chief would “love to see” an Emirati writer connected on stage with an author from another country.

“To see them connected by a topic or by an idea or by their writing. That is where I think you get a really wonderful sort of dialogue, and it's rooted here, in the home of the festival, where it all started.”

Updated: October 21, 2022, 6:00 PM