Conversations around books in the UAE grew by 7 per cent compared to 3 per cent in the online space worldwide, revealed the director of the Emirates Literature Festival in an exclusive interview with Khaleej Times.

“The percentage in the UAE is more than double the global average, and that is remarkable and an optimistic sign,” said Ahlam Bolooki on a busy Day 1 of the festival, while speaking about a study commissioned by the foundation last year called Book Talks - or a conversation around books.

The director of the Emirates Festival of Literature, which opened at its new home at Habtoor City Hotels on Thursday, says: “The festival is playing a pivotal role in inculcating a love for the written and spoken word in the UAE.

“The prime objective is spreading a love for words and reading, so that people can be lovers of reading for life. Once you find a love for reading, it will stay with you forever. The best thing once can do in life is to keep learning. We get one life, but when we are readers we get to live so many lives in one,” she said, urging everyone to make books their friend.

Speaking about this year’s theme: ‘Here comes the Sun’, she said: “We wanted to give the festival an optimistic theme so that we can use this platform as a positive step into brighter times. Last year we weren’t able to have international authors but this year they are back, and it’s a full programme with a diverse set of events.”

She said the move to the new canal-side location at the Habtoor City Hotels, was a creative decision to give the festival a new vibe. “The Habtoor Palace is wonderful venue that caters to everything we need. There are three hotels in the complex, there is a lot more variety for our audiences to have a better experience and plenty of F&B outlets here. We’ve also been hearing that it’s a lot more centrally-located and easily accessible for everyone,” she said.

Speaking about the challenges of drawing up such an extensive programme, Bolooki said: “Organising this festival is a complex job and this is my fourth festival now. In the first year I was observing and taking in as much as I could. In year two, I started to give my inputs and then year-on-year I’ve got the hang of planning a programme that appeals to all the nationalities who live in Dubai.

“A year and a half of research happens for every festival programme, promoting and dissecting it for audiences of all ages and nationalities. Then working to make sure that schools in the country benefit from it as much as possible from what we are doing here. That’s also a challenge. But once it all comes together, there is nothing more rewarding,” she said.

Bolooki said: “Every year we find it easier to have a higher caliber of authors and speakers because the festival is the largest celebration of the written and spoken word in the Arab world. We believe it ranks among the top 10 literary festivals in the world.”

Speaking about creating an ecosystem where literature and culture can flourish, Bolooki said the inaugural day at this edition was dedicated to local talent, covering everything from literary fiction, trail-blazing women and careers of the future.

“On the first day - free to attend for all - we are highlighting Emirati literature. Local authors are looking at the festival as a platform to launch books and start their writer’s journey. There are a lot of initiatives that support writer’s that are starting out such as writing workshops, writers’ fellowship, and the LitFest writing prize that has seen nine international authors come through it.

The director said this year will witness a stellar line-up of children’s authors. “We’ve had a wonderful children’s author called Ebitsam Al-Beiti who launched her first book last year at the festival and this year she is back with her second book. We’ve got Ben Miller - a lovely children’s author and also an actor from The Bridgerton series, and Julia Quinn who is a writer from that series is also here.”

While the 2022 edition of the festival hosts 180 authors from more than 50 nationalities, there are many whose books have been made into movies.

“The festival this year has a lot of authors whose books have been made into movies, such as the House of Gucci. Another author close to my heart is Dr Rupy Aujla. David Walliams has three sold out sessions at the festival. Local author Julia Johnson is also here.”

Inviting little ones to celebrate Charles Dickens’ birthday, Bolooki said visitors can enjoy a three course meal with an invitation to Miss Havisham’s wedding which originally never happened in the novel. “I am definitely going to the birth anniversary celebrations of Charles Dickens. Anybody who has read Great Expectations or watched the movie knows who Miss Havisham is and we are finally giving her the wedding.

“Dickens’ great-great-great granddaughter Lucinda Dickens Hawksley will also tell us about Miss Havisham and discuss the women portrayed in Dickens’ other novels,” she adds.

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