x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Monty Python star at literature festival

Michael Palin tells opening gala audience why Dubai remains a special place for him after an adventure while filming his BBC travel series.

In front of a packed theatre at the Cultural and Scientific Association, Pailn recounts a journey he took from the UAE to India in 1988 aboard a wooden dhow.
In front of a packed theatre at the Cultural and Scientific Association, Pailn recounts a journey he took from the UAE to India in 1988 aboard a wooden dhow.

DUBAI // The British author, actor and comedian Michael Palin last night revealed that one of the great turning points of his life happened in Dubai.

The Monty Python star was speaking as part of a gala evening to mark the first day of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

In front of a packed theatre at the Cultural and Scientific Association, he recounted a journey he took from the UAE to India in 1988 aboard a wooden dhow.

During the filming of his first BBC travel documentary, Around the World in 80 Days, Palin crossed the seas from Dubai to Mumbai in a dhow with no radar or radio, a crew of 18 Gujaratis who could not speak English and an engine that kept cutting out.

He said it was a life-changing experience.

"I got onto the dhow still being the TV star and very aware of the role I was acting, but by the time we finished I was simply myself. From then on I changed the way I worked, dropped the act and realised it was always best to be yourself.

"That's the reason I enjoy coming back to Dubai," he said.

His hour-long talk, entitled 40 Years without a Proper Job, covered his extensive travels as well as showcasing a series of photographs he has taken in some of the world's most unusual places.

He said it was an honour and a delight to be one of the Dubai event's "warm-up acts".

Yesterday morning, during the opening ceremony in the same theatre, Isobel Abulhoul, the festival's founder and director, said she was excited and proud to be hosting literary figures such as Palin.

The event was one of 130 listed during the five-day event intended to make the audience feel alive, she said.

"No one will sleep at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature," she said. "That's a promise."

The gala evenings, of which a second will follow tonight featuring the Canadian novelist and poet Margaret Atwood, are a new addition to the literature festival, now in its third year.

Ms Abulhoul said the idea was to keep expanding the event. "The vision of our lit fest is to be all inclusive and to cover as wide a range of genres as possible."

She said the ethos behind the festival was the "dedication to the cause of literacy", which had been her inspiration and had driven her vision.

Describing her own childhood experience of learning to read as entering through a "magic gate into a secret garden", she said she wanted as many people as possible to pass through that gate into the world of books.

"Literacy is not a luxury, but an essential life skill. At the heart of our festival is the fight against illiteracy."

Although it is still a young festival, it is well received on the international circuit.

Michael Morpurgo, a visiting British author whose children's novel War Horse has spent four successful years as a West End production in London and has been turned into a Hollywood film by Steven Spielberg to be released later this year, said the event was a "must go" for him.

"What makes it different is that it gets writers together and we are looked after really well. There is also an outreach programme within the schools. It is good for the community in Dubai and it is good for us as writers."

Morpurgo, whose book tells the story of the First World War through the eyes of a cavalry horse, said his story was highly appreciated in Dubai.

"The people here know horses very well and have a deep respect for the animal that goes back many years. Arabian horses are some of the most beautiful and powerful in the world and to some extent the war horse is what this land has been built on.

"It is lovely to speak to people who understand the character of the horse."

Morpurgo will speak to an audience aged seven and above on Saturday morning.

Michael Palin's talk was followed by a classical music concert from Dubai Sinfonia, who performed a piece from the Georges Bizet opera Carmen, and a talk by the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka. Completing the evening was a performance of Emirati poetry read by Dha'en Shaheen, the editor of Al Bayan newspaper in Dubai.

aseaman@thenational.ae