Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 23 September 2019

'Local authors are extremely important'

This much I know Isabel Abulhoul founded Magrudy's bookshop in Dubai 33 years ago.
Isabel Abulhoul opened the first Magrudy's store in 1975.
Isabel Abulhoul opened the first Magrudy's store in 1975.

Isabel Abulhoul founded Magrudy's bookshop in Dubai 33 years ago. In February next year she will bring 60 authors together in Dubai for the first Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature. My parents were avid readers. We lived in Cambridge, England, where I met my husband, Abdullah, an Emirati, who was there to improve his English. I came out to Dubai in 1968 to meet his family. It changed the course of our lives. I was about to go to university to read sociology at Essex and I made the decision to give up my place and get married instead. I finished my A levels and did a secretarial course. It was the most useful thing I did as I had all the skills I needed when it came to starting a business.

When I first came out, Port Rashid wasn't built. I had packed up about 300 of my books and they came by sea. I love modern classics: Hemingway, George Orwell, Graham Greene. I also like Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. When they arrived I read them all again and once I came to the end of them, I realised there was nowhere to buy books. We had no TV or newspapers and there wasn't much to do. There were hardly any tourists. In 1971 we would travel down to Abu Dhabi in convoy. There were no mobile phones, no marked roads and people died on the journey if they broke down or got stuck in the sand or lost their way. To get to Sharjah, we went at low tide. I worked at Dubai Infants School just over Maktoum Bridge.

We have five children; Hamda, 37, Mansour, 34, Shemma, 30, Mediyah, 20 and Anayah, 18. The sixth child is Magrudy's. My husband was incredibly concerned because every time I went on holiday I came back laden with books. He said, 'wouldn't it be easier to start a shop?' We opened the first Magrudy's in 1975 and we now have eight branches, including one in Abu Dhabi. I got all the publisher's details from my own books. I wanted a name that didn't really mean anything but had an Arabic connection, and the word "magrood" means feted.

We set up as an educational toy shop originally, but I felt that children's books should be part of an education. Then mothers would ask if we had any books for mother and baby, then it was cook books. It was an incredibly steep learning curve and I made mistakes. I thought it would be a great idea to manufacture all the primary aids for schools in Arabic, rulers, set squares and the like, but people weren't interested. I think we were too early. Also, you can't predict a best-seller, so when a particular book sold out we had to wait for the next shipment.

I want anyone who visit Magrudy's to feel comfortable. A student may come in to buy a pencil case and happen to see a book. I would like people to discover what fun books are. Reading for me is the most important asset a child may have. Anything you can do to encourage that should be at the top of everyone's priorities. I read to my children long after they could read and they read to each other. It was like brushing your teeth, something you don't miss. For many nationalities, including Emiratis, reading wasn't something that was shared. They have a much stronger tradition of telling stories and reciting poetry here.

Encouraging literacy has been one of the driving forces behind the Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature. For many children, they are handed textbooks at school. They don't get that warm cuddly thing of sitting at their mother's knee. It makes books seem serious. I want to take them to a different place. We have some very famous authors coming like Kate Adie, Sir Ranulph Fiennes, Wilbur Smith, Rageh Omaar, Victoria Hislop, Kate Mosse, Paulo Coelho, Frank McCourt. I believe that local authors are extremely important and anyone who has anything to offer should contact us, but the key ingredient has to be the globally known writers. What is going to draw people is the opportunity to listen to their heroes and heroines. The writer Kate Mosse said to me that the most important day in the festival was Education Day on day four when we are taking the message out into the community. It's hard to change 40-year-old adults, but we want to inspire children.

I'm in the fortunate position that I don't have to work. I do it because I love it. It has never been just a job for me.

Updated: October 8, 2008 04:00 AM

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