x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Book festival mixes childish fun with heavyweight debate

Glittering line-up of authors attracts 25,000 to festival events including readings by children's authors and debates on barriers facing women writers.

DUBAI // For some visitors, it was simply a chance to hear their favourite author speak. But for thousands who attended the Festival of Literature, which ended yesterday, it gave a rare opportunity to explore more heavyweight issues surrounding reading and writing in the Arab world. Barriers facing women writers, the lack of Arab literature and poor literacy levels in the Middle East and open expression in conservative Saudi Arabia were fiercely debated over the four-day event, which attracted more than 25,000 book lovers.

Badriah al Bishr, a novelist from Saudi Arabia, said although her country was proud of its female authors, they all had "a little policeman inside", referring to the issue of self-censorship. Salima Salih, from Iraq, who spoke at the same session on women writing in the Arab world, added that the number of female Iraqi authors had changed little in the past 40 years. "I write as an act of hope from a position of despair," she said.

Isabel Abulhoul, the festival director, said the event's greatest achievement was the involvement of children. Nearly 4,000 youngsters attended workshops in Al Mamzar, near Sharjah, on Thursday, where 25 authors, including Roger McGough and Jacqueline Wilson, read to them and held talks to encourage them to pick up books. It came after a panel of education experts gave warning that "archaic" Arabic lessons were deterring youngsters from enjoying books in their native language and having a negative impact on literacy levels.

Mrs Abulhoul said: "Last year we had some wonderful children's authors but we did not have enough. We had not anticipated the need and hunger, so this year we tripled the number." Of the 107 authors at the festival, 27 were writers of children's fiction. The number of authors and visitors were up from the inaugural event last year, when 20,000 people attended to hear 80 writers speak. "The festival is not just about listening to authors, it is about finding topics and ideas to launch intelligent debates," said Mrs Abulhoul.

"There is no platform for that here, and a literary festival is absolutely the right place to do it." Among the more unusual talks was one that addressed social media and the power of the internet. It involved members of the audience posting Twitter messages on a screen behind the host, Alexander MacNabb, during a discussion on different forms of communication. Authors who appeared at the festival included Martin Amis and his wife Isabel Fonseca, Yann Martel, who wrote Life Of Pi, the Slumdog Millionaire author Vikas Swarup and the British foreign correspondents Kate Adie and John Simpson.

Shobhaa De, India's first gossip columnist and the former editor of Stardust magazine, which covers the highs and lows of Bollywood life, also attended. She said she had turned her attention to a more heavyweight subject for her latest novel, Superstar India from Incredible to Unstoppable, and was now writing about politics, corruption and the desecration of her homeland. "We have been on the back foot for a long time," she said.

"I am really against western perceptions of India and want the country to be understood on its own terms." @Email:tyaqoob@thenational.ae