What is it?
Unlike other book fairs in the region, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature - from March 5to 9 at the InterContinental Dubai at Festival City - stands out for its emphasis on the authors rather than book sales alone.
The festival offers a plethora of author discussions ranging from In Conversation sessions and panel discussions to masterclasses and even the chance to share a meal with your favourite writer. With the festival celebrating its fifth year, the director Isobel Abulhoul says it will be the best yet.
"We are driven by this vision and really this big ambition to make each year better," she says. "We always take a look at what happened in the past and we ask ourselves how can we improve on it." The rigorous planning and feedback resulted in a host of new programmes including the festival's first ever literary dinner and The Ladies' Morning, where female writers and readers bond over workshops and author sessions.
Abulhoul says the festival has to constantly innovate - it is simply the Dubai way. "The community has an expectation of what celebration means," she says. "All we have done is fulfil that expectation in a way that is fitting with this part of the world."
With more than 100 authors invited, the festival offers plenty of options catering to all literary palates. Popular fiction lovers should be more than satisfied with the arrival of the best-selling author Jeffrey Archer, the crime writer Ian Rankin and the latest to chronicle the exploits of James Bond, Jeffery Deaver.
History buffs should enjoy discussions featuring the Second World War specialist Antony Beevor while poetry lovers are in for a treat with the arrival of Simon Armitage and Roger McGough and Dubai's own Adel Khozam. The festival continues its strong food programme with the return of popular chefs Bobby Chinn and much-loved Italian cook Antonio Carluccio. Of course, this is nothing but a footnote in what is a packed programme full of colourful authors.
Heroes and Villains
The festival's 200-plus sessions will revolve around the theme of Heroes and Villains. Abulhoul explains the age-old expression encompasses the various genres the festival tackles. "You can look at it metaphorically, historically or literally," she says. "You've got flawed heroes and loveable villains. When it comes to food can one say sugar is a villain? What has been so rewarding is that all the authors love the theme because it is something they can really get their teeth into."
A chat with friends
Authors, no strangers to such global talkfests, should find some of the festival's new programming refreshing. Where in previous years writers were interviewed by a festival host, this time around some sessions will have authors teaming up to discuss each other's works: the crime authors Mark Billingham and John Connolly pair up to discuss the festival theme while Jeffrey Archer and Anthony Horowitz are to appear together under the banner of Stranger Than Fiction.
Abulhoul says the intimate format should reveal some real nuggets. "These pairings are match[es] made in heaven," she says. "When a writer interviews another writer, they absolutely know the heart of the matter, therefore their interview skills are so attuned that they allow the audience to go to a whole new level."
The special events
Among festival firsts this year is a March 7 murder mystery that dinner will be run by members of the Dubai Theatre Group, with participants able to share a table alongside the likes of crime authors Lynda LaPlante, John Connolly and Ian Rankin.
On March 6 more than 200 poetry lovers have the chance to travel to a Dubai desert camp for an enchanting evening of poetry and traditional Arabic dinning. Poets showcasing their work under the stars include Armitage and McGough in addition to Sjon, Ben Okri and Paul Blezard. The literary lunches are set to return to the InterContinental Hotel's Terra Firma restaurant with spicy banter supplied by Chinn and Carluccio.
Make sure you plan
The wide breadth of the festival programming means would-be attendees need to consider their tickets carefully. Abulhoul advises drawing up a daily schedule before purchasing the tickets. "Sometimes there are 13 sessions running simultaneously," she says. "What we are trying to do is make sure that our programme is diverse and broad enough that every single human who is breathing will find something to enjoy."
The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is from March 5 to 9 at the InterContinental hotel in Dubai Festival City. Tickets go on sale today at www.emirateslitfest.com. Main programme sessions start at Dh40. Festival Friends get 10 per cent off all tickets