BEIRUT: This region has its fair share of book fairs. Beirut itself hosts at least three of them – for Francophone, art and international publications – supplemented by those in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, along with older Arab cultural centers such as Cairo and Baghdad. Literary festivals, however, are more rare. Focused less on sales than lectures, workshops and discussions, events such as the annual Emirates Airline Festival of Literature provide an opportunity for publishers and the authors they represent to mingle with one another and their readers.
The sixth edition of EAFL, which runs March 4-8 in Dubai, aims to assemble some 100 international authors and close to 60 U.A.E-based writers for talks, workshops, panels, readings and discussions centered on the theme of metamorphosis. Each event is accompanied by simultaneous translation, allowing speakers of Arabic, English and French to access the full program.
The international authors scheduled to attend include such renowned figures as Ahdaf Soueif, Amit Chaudhary, Jeremy Paxman, Joanna Harris, Nicolas Evans and children’s book author Eoin Colfer. Eight Lebanese writers are also scheduled to make appearances.
Authors are invited based on several criteria, Yvette Judge, the festival’s acting director, explained. Some are selected because their work fits with the festival’s theme, others because of publishers’ recommendations, many because they have a significant local following. The topics of their talks vary widely.
“We definitely want them to interpret the theme in the way they want to,” Judge told The Daily Star by telephone. “Sometimes the theme just doesn’t work for them, and that’s also perfectly fine. Usually an author will want to talk about their latest book. Sometimes they’ll have a burning topic that they want to air, so quite a lot of them focus on current events and issues. ... In this part of the world, those sessions are always really popular.”
This year’s Lebanese contingent includes psychologist Anita Papas, author of self-help books on positive thinking; TV chef and cookbook author Arlette Boutros, journalist and founder of the Samir Kassir Foundation Gisele Khoury; Dubai-based authors Hani Soubra and Rewa Zeinati; and three children’s authors, Sahar Naja Mahfouz, Samar Mahfouz Barraj and Nadine Touma.
None of the Lebanese authors invited this year write straight fiction, something Judge said occurred by coincidence rather than design.
“Sometimes it’s just the way it works,” she said. “Issues and current events are popular and they seem to really pull the crowds in. ... A lot of them were ... recommended to us. Dubai has a very large Lebanese community, and we have a number of Lebanese staff here too, so we listened to their advice. It’s [also a question of] what’s going to be popular, so we’ve got journalists [and] we’ve got children’s writers.”
The Lebanese authors scheduled to take part all agreed that EAFL was a good place to make connections and raise their public profiles.
“I’ve been following the advance of the festival for the last two years,” said Barraj, who is participating for the first time this year. “And I think it’s a very good opportunity to meet other authors, to exchange experiences, to see how other authors think or work or maybe discuss issues about books or publishing or reading. It’s good exposure.”
“We are facing a problem in the Arab world,” Barraj said. “Not many people read.”
“We are doing our best to encourage children to read, and there’s no doubt that the Emirati market is important, because they do a lot of reading-related activities. They have book fairs in Sharjah [and] Abu Dhabi so it’s a good place to market books, and I know that they are interested in promoting reading, which helps a lot.”
Touma, whose Beirut-based publishing house Dar Onboz produces beautifully illustrated books for children and young adults, says she enjoys the interactive element of literature festivals. She took part three years ago, she explained, and was happy to be invited back this year.
“What I love about literary festivals,” she said, “which is very different from book fairs, is that you really get to meet your readers. You really get to share what you do. I wear two hats. I wear the hat of the publisher, as Dar Onboz, and I wear the hat of the writer and I love wearing the hat of the writer. I love giving workshops, I love doing storytelling sessions. I’ve requested a session with mothers this year, so I’m going to be doing [that] and sessions in schools and reading during the festival.”
Publishing exclusively in Arabic, Touma stressed the importance of festivals in engaging Arab audiences.
“This festival is really very special, frankly,” she said. “I’ve been to other festivals and ... you always see that the English speakers or readers come by the hundreds, and most Arab speakers or readers come in such few numbers. I hope to see that improving year after year. I think with such festivals and fairs – and it’s also about the activities – hopefully the numbers will increase with time.”
“When you go to Dubai, you don’t [only] get an Emirati audience,” she adds. “Last time, I had Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians. [It’s] a very cosmopolitan place ... even if you go to the schools.”
For authors like Papas who write in English, the Gulf market can dictate whether or not the book merits an Arabic translation.
“My books have been in the Gulf ever since they were first released,” she explained, “so we already know that in the English version it was being sold in large amounts. In the Gulf, both languages are okay, but the demand was so huge that we felt like we needed to go with the Arabic too.”
She said the best thing about EAFL was the chance to reach those unfamiliar with her work: “I love [giving] public talks because I feel like I can reach a wider audience and I can get my message across. Dubai is giving me that opportunity.” – I.S.
The Emirates Literature Festival runs from March 4 to 8 at the InterContinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City. For more information, please visit emirateslitfest.com.