x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Real page-turners

The 2010 Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature has lined up big-name authors.

The Egyptian author Yusuf Zeydan is the winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
The Egyptian author Yusuf Zeydan is the winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

It may be 10 months away, but the 2010 Emirates Airline International Festival of Literature's announcement of the first few names to attend has already caused a stir. Martin Amis, Alexander McCall Smith, Tim Butcher, Mark Billingham and William Dalrymple will be descending on Dubai next March for the festival's second year - quite a coup for such a young event. But then the bar was set high from the start after a crop of heavyweights including Margaret Atwood, Wilbur Smith, Terry Brooks and Brian Aldiss opened this year's proceedings.

Of course, Atwood also refused to attend the opening edition of the festival after the alleged banning of a book by the British author Geraldine Bedell - only for it to emerge that the book had never been scheduled for the festival in the first place. Atwood said in an article in The Guardian: "Having leapt into this dog's breakfast, I have it all over my face." Reams of international coverage followed.

Isobel Abulhoul, the festival director, says: "What was actually quite a stressful situation to be in turned into such a positive benefit for the festival long term. It meant that everyone around the world heard about the literary festival in Dubai. Also, out of the initial misunderstanding came this hugely positive debate on censorship." Atwood appeared via video link for the debate, along with the Saudi Arabian author of Girls of Riyadh, Rajaa Alsanea, the habitual book prize judge Rachael Billington, the Ukrainian humorist Andrey Kurkov and the Jordanian-Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasrallah.

It has also meant that Abulhoul as had little trouble attracting authors for the 2010 event. "When we went to the London Book Fair in April, no single publisher or agent that we spoke to had not heard of the festival and had not heard good things," she says. The festival, by all accounts, was a hugely pleasurable experience for all involved. "Of all of those authors who came, without exception they all absolutely raved about the festival," says Abulhoul. "These authors came as pioneers and left as ambassadors."

Their good words have attracted a highbrow bunch: Amis, whose novels Money and London Fields distilled the restless consumerism of the 1980s, is perhaps the most interesting draw. He famously made incendiary comments about Muslim fundamentalists and has been outspoken about his views on Sharia law. His wife, the American author Isabel Fonseca, will also attend. Her 1995 exploration of Romany codes, Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and Their Journey, was highly acclaimed, and her long-awaited debut novel, Attachment, was released last year.

Rarely off best-seller lists, McCall Smith is the amazingly productive author (he has written a book almost every year since 1998) behind the No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, which features the rotund Precious Ramotswe as Botswana's only female private detective. Butcher's 2008 debut was Blood River: A Journey to Africa's Broken Heart, in which the young writer set off to the Congo's eastern border with only a rucksack and a few thousand dollars with the intention of recreating HM Stanley's famous 1874 expedition. The result was a gripping, disturbed portrait of modern central Africa.

Billingham, the best-selling author and creator of the detective Tom Thorne, will also appear at the 2010 event. Among the Arabic writers attending are the Sudanese author Leila Aboulela, the Palestinian writer Raja Shehadeh, the Emirati poet and film director Nujoom al Ghanem, and the winner of the 2009 Arabic Booker prize, Professor Yusuf Zeydan. The preliminary list of authors has already exceeded expectations, according to Abulhoul. "We set ourselves a goal of 25, and we're up to 33 already," she says.

Following feedback received via an online survey, Abulhoul has decided to expand the programme for children and young adults. "There was a huge demand and we just couldn't satisfy the younger festival-goers," she says. This year's festival featured Anthony Horowitz, Lauren Child and Anne Fine. The 2010 event will include the best-selling children's author Gervase Phinn and Darren Shan, the author of the young adult series Saga and Demonata.

The success of this year's Education Day, during which children and students interacted with the authors, has also led to an extension of the festival's student writing competition to include university undergraduates. Part of the appeal of last year's festival, according to Abulhoul, was its accessibility, and she intends to extend that to the 2010 event. "It was a very inclusive event," she says. "I think literature has that effect. It was very affordable and we had the fringe thing going on, which was free."

Similarly, the simultaneous translation system meant that debates were open to all. "You went into a debate on the Arab novel in Saudi," she says, "and you would normally expect only Arab speakers to be going, but it wasn't at all. More than half the audiences in some of the Arabic sessions were non-Arabs. It was opening doors and people were discovering authors and literature in translation." With more names to be released over the course of the year, Abulhoul feels there is a growing appetite for interaction on this scale.

"Everyone was so hungry for it when it started," she says. "I think humanity is recognising the importance of debate and interaction with other human beings. We spend so much of our time with technology and computers in solitary confinement that this was something that people needed and wanted." And the online survey has yielded promising results. "Seventy-two per cent of festival-goers were more likely to pick up a book and read it after they had been to the festival," she says. "That was one of our key visions - to find ways to celebrate reading, to get people reading more and to get people to recognise the benefits of books in our lives. And I think we did that."