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Empathy & Connection: Curating the Emirates Festival of Literature, Ahlam Bolooki

Ahlam Bolooki is the Director of the Emirates Festival of Literature – the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word. With a mission of inspiring all, including non-readers, to read for pleasure, Ahlam is responsible for curating a diverse, inclusive and enlightening Festival programme.

We talk to Ahlam about her approach to curating the festival, the future of literature in the MENA region, why empathy is important and celebrating local and global talent.

The Emirates Festival of Literature is the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, what is the most exciting about literature in the Middle East right now?

To give you some context, this is the 14th annual Festival in 2022, and in that time, we have seen regional and locally based authors explode, both in terms or quantity and quality, and it is across all genres.

I also think there is a growing global interest in authentic stories from this part of the world. At the Emirates Literature Foundation, we have launched an initiative called Kateb Maktub, committed to making information about Arab authors and literature more easily available online in both Arabic and English. Historically, the lack of easily found information has been a big factor in holding Arab literature back, but not anymore. Looking at the trajectory, I am very excited for the future.

I can’t wait to see how the region continues to produce unique stories with many varied perspectives from the Middle East.

What is your approach to curating content for the festival?

We know our audience, but to make sure we are on the right track, we ask for their opinion on a continuous basis. As a Foundation, we balance the desires of the audience with the needs of our community, which is how we have arrived where we are today: with the biggest literature Festival in the Middle East, a plethora of competitions, a wide-ranging Education Programme, celebration of and professional development for librarians, and courses, talks, and special initiatives that all build the foundations for a reading society.

For the Festival specifically, we have a theme every year, so we always look at how an author and their works fit with our theme. But we are also an organisation full of readers, so we have our own personal wish lists as well as those our community sends us.

Every year we aim to have the perfect combination of well-known and new, best-selling and niche, across non-fiction, fiction, adults and children’s books in both Arabic and English. The Festival is completely independently curated, and we begin sowing the seeds of the next festival as much as 18 months in advance. We speak to publishers and authors, we look at what is coming out and what resonates with our audience, as well as the big topics of today. A significant part of what we do is bring together people from the four corners of the world on one stage, to share their perspectives on some of the most pressing issues of our time.

Can you tell us more about the theme for this year’s festival and what are the big ideas being explored?

Our theme is Here Comes the Sun, signalling a new dawn, and light after the darkness. It is a theme of positivity, inspiration and joy, and we are confident our programme will bring some much-needed sunshine to our audiences.

Our Festival programme will also, as always, bring into the light all sorts of issues that have been hiding in the dark, with world leading experts sharing their views on important topics.

Many of your authors (and their publishers) come from the English-speaking West; how much do you see LitFest as a local fair, with a local audience? Or is the aim to be both local and global?

We are a truly international celebration of stories. We have more than 180 authors coming to the festival, and more than 90 of those are Arab authors, both locally based and international. In total, our author line-up for 2022 will represent 48 different nationalities, and we think that is incredible.

The Festival has become home to the conversations that matter, bringing together authors and experts from all over the world on one stage.

How do you support and profile writers from the Arab diasapora?

We curate the Festival for our audiences, and for our times. Every author is invited on merit, so while we always ensure that there are Arab voices and perspectives heard alongside international voices, we are don’t believe in quotas, we believe in quality.

Alongside the festival, we also have many initiatives designed to support and raise the profile of Arab writers. I have already mentioned Kateb Maktub, which is about giving visibility to those who are already established in their writing careers. We also launched in 2021 First Chapter: ELF Seddiqi Writers’ Fellowship, which is an incredible programme where we connect successful international and local established authors with talented aspiring writers in the UAE for mentoring. In addition, each mentee gets a number of workshops and classes to level up their craft to a global standard, as well as exposure to agents, publishers and industry experts.

How did you develop a connection to the written word? Through the festival how do you hope to connect and interest non-readers to be inspired to read too?

Our biggest challenge is pulling in those who don’t see themselves as readers. Those are the people we need to convert, so in a sense we are competing with cinemas, restaurants and every other activity available at that time.

To address this, we use creative and often surprising programming, perhaps we pair a social media celebrity with a literary author on a panel discussion, or another unexpected combination that bring two worlds together, which has worked well in the past.

Why is creating a more empathetic society a priority for the festival?

My objective and ambition is always to connect as many people as possible with books and authors. We know reading creates empathy, and that is what we need most of all in the world today. Empathy and empathetic action towards others, towards our planet and to ourselves.

Diversity and inclusion are important to the festival, how do you hope to reach audiences of all ages and backgrounds?

We are here in Dubai, one of the most multicultural cities in the world. We have people of more than 200 nationalities living here, and our festival reflects our audiences. We have many challenges, but diversity is not one.

Who are you personally looking forward to seeing at the Festival this year? Which planned events excite you most?

There are so many, and in a wide range of fields.

The Festival starts with a day dedicated to Emirati talents, which promises some incredible, insightful conversations as well and literary readings and poetry performances.

I am also excited to welcome Julia Quinn, author of Bridgerton, the most swoon-worthy series of books in years; jewellery designer to the stars Azza Fahmy; Gary Vaynerchuck, the entrepreneurship and marketing speaker; Brit Bennet, author of beautiful literary fiction; Ahmed El Ghandour, the Egyptian science YouTuber; literary Emirati novelist Salha Obeid; the amazing poet Elizabeth Acevedo, who will also be performing alongside local poets at the Desert Stanzas, our unique signature event, with poetry performances in a Bedouin camp under the stars.

It is so hard to pick your favourites. Ask me tomorrow and there will be a different list.

Which book changed your life and shaped your outlook?

This is an impossible question because every good book that I read changes me a little. New characters enter my life that I start to care and wonder about even long after I’ve moved on from the book. Even if they are not real, my concerns for their lives, my affection towards them, my connections with them are all very real. The choices they make teach me new things. One of the books that shaped my outlook this year was Motherhood by Sheila Heti. When it comes to non-fiction, I have learned a lot from the likes of Yuval Noah Harari and Alain de Botton.

What does the future of literature look like to you, especially in relation to Islamic art, heritage and culture?

The future looks bright! I believe it will hold Arab authors sharing perspectives from this region alongside their peers from every corner of the world. We'll see more works in translation, and a global market opening up. The work we do at the Foundation promotes Arab authors to the world, and we would love to see the same happening in art, design, and other creative fields.

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The views of the artists, authors and writers who contribute to Bayt Al Fann do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Bayt Al Fann, its owners, employees and affiliates.


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