Isobel Abulhoul is Festival Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature and CEO of the Emirates Literature Foundation.
Abulhoul was born in England and came to Dubai in 1968 where she has worked throughout her career to promote education, reading and writing to the United Arab Emirates. She became co-founder of Magrudy’s, a bookshop chain, in 1975, when Dubai was still far from what it is now.
In 2008, Isobel Abulhoul founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The Festival is considered the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word. Nowadays, reading often is regarded as something old-fashioned, but I think it’s a wonderful activity, which helps us enrich our universes and develop creativity. Besides, it is one of the cheapest and nicest ways to keep yourself (and your children if you have any) entertained here in Dubai during hot summer months. I decided to find out from Isobel Abulhoul why is reading important and whether it is possible to learn to love books.
UncoverDubai: How did your love for books start? Which books did you read as a child and which books did you read to your children?
As long as I can remember, books have been an integral part of my life. As a small child I would wait patiently by the front door for my father to get home from work, as he would read to me every night at bedtime. That was his special time with me. As well as picture books, he would recite poetry and children’s rhymes. My mother was an avid reader, and so throughout the day, we would share books. The books I can remember most vividly from my early childhood are Struwwelpeter, not something that children today would appreciate. Tales and illustrations of woe on every page!
Another picture book was a story about two tiny beings that came out of a shell and were washed up on the seashore. They stayed for the day and had supper and then disappeared again. Once I could read to myself I loved all the books by Enid Blyton, The Secret Garden, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Little White Horse and Black Beauty. My children read many of the books that I had read as a child (I had kept them) plus everything by Roald Dahl, books by Russell Hoban, Little House on the Prairie, Babar the Elephant books, books by Shirley Hughes, and many many more.
UD: I sometimes take metro and I take it as an opportunity to spend more time reading. However, other people are mostly on their phones- playing games, chatting. Is it possible at all to make reading trendy? How does a digital society become a reading nation? Where does one begin?
I have thought about this for a very long time. How can we pass on the enjoyment that we get from reading a good book? I believe that the sooner a baby is introduced to books, the more chance he or she has of growing up into someone who reads for pleasure. It is important that parents set the right example, by setting aside time to read to their children every day, and making it an enjoyable, relaxed experience. Never confuse reading for pleasure with ‘learning’. It is good to ensure that there is a choice of books at home, and a regular visit to the library is another good way to expand a child’s interest. If parents read for pleasure there is a much higher likelihood that the children will also be readers.
Why is reading a good pastime and how can one make himself read if his attention gap is so short? We all understand the importance of learning this habit as a child, but where does one start as an adult?
For adults and young adults, joining a book group is a very sociable and interesting way of sharing books, opinions and ideas. There are a wide variety of book groups in the UAE to appeal to all tastes. Also for those who don’t read regularly, it can be daunting to select a book from the vast array available. I often suggest that if the person can think of a book that has been adapted into a film that they have seen and enjoyed, to start with that. If you have seen the film, you have an idea of the content, the story and the characters, and reading the book will only enhance your understanding and enjoyment.
Has the reading culture changed in the past years in the UAE? How does UAE compare to other countries of the world?
I think globally a culture of reading is suffering, mainly because of the frenetic existence that we lead. There is no down time, no one dares to switch off their mobile phone. They waste valuable moments checking it every five minutes. Make time, when you arrive home, to ditch the mobile for at least four hours. Take time to relax, and hopefully spend some time reading too.
There was a little cute bookstore in my neighborhood, then one day it closed down and now there is a sports shop instead. Doesn’t it reflect our society and its values? Is being fit physically really more important nowadays than being “fit” intellectually? How did you manage to keep your Magrudy’s bookstores running?
Bookshops have to adapt to changes in lifestyle and customers’ habits. It is also important to be aware of fashions in publishing, new writers, new titles, so that visitors to a bookshop have a fresh experience each time they visit. Physical exercise is important, and so is intellectual stimulation. Reading is food for the soul!
Tell us more about Emirates Literature Festival. Why did you start Emirates Literature Festival? What is so significant about it? How is it progressing each year? Who should attend and why? Are there many local authors participating?
The inspiration for the Festival came from HH Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai. HH Sheikh Mohammed is a poet and writer himself and he has worked tirelessly to improve literacy in the region and the wider Arab World.
I wanted to take this vision further and encourage people, especially children, to read for pleasure, because the benefits of being a regular reader are enormous. The first Festival took place in 2009, and it has gone from strength to strength with each passing year.
The Festival has grown into the largest award-winning dedicated literature festival in the Middle East, and each year, a key attraction must be the diverse, international group of writers who attend and connect with the multicultural audiences from the region and tourists as well. Last year 160 authors from more than 30 countries came, so audiences were spoilt for choice.
The most important aspect of the Festival is that it is an enjoyable and inclusive event for the whole family. I can guarantee that there will be something of interest for everyone across the age groups, with new and exciting additions to the programme each year. Part of the key vision of the Festival has always been the free Education Day events, the Student Sessions, Author School Visits and the students’ competitions – it makes the entire experience accessible to a huge number of young people. The Festival is creating both avid readers and writers.
Talking about local authors, who are ones you think we should read? How are local authors different from other new authors around the world? What interests them? What do they depict?
Each year, thanks to the Montegrappa Writing Prize, the winning entrants have achieved international publishing deals, and return as authors in their own right. Writers are writers, wherever they are based and use experiences around them to weave into their stories. Dubai is such a rich mix of cultures and nationalities, which inevitably leads to heightened creativity. The tag line for the Festival is ‘ Where Stories Happen’.
How many books do you read a year? How else do you spend your free time? And where do you get all the energy from?
I read on average two books a week, which is not a chore but a joy. Over the year I would estimate that I read more than 200 books. Apart from reading, I love swimming and swim early most mornings. I enjoy cooking and spending time with my wonderful grandsons. Of course even though the oldest is not yet five, they all love books!