Emirates Airline Festival of Literature 2010 – Dubai
EAFL only began in 2009, and established Dubai’s cultural credentials beyond shopping
and recreational activities. Isobel Abulhoul made it happen, with the necessary
sponsorship and funding generously provided by Emirates Airline, Dubai Culture and
Catherine Lockerbie invited me to the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2007,
where I met Wendy Were, who invited me to the Sydney Writers’ Festival 2008, where
I met Janet DeNeefe, who invited me to the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival 2008
in Bali, where I met Jeni Caffin, who invited me to the Byron Bay Writers Festival
2009, where my book Unimagined was the Number One Bestseller. Jeni met Isobel Abulhoul
on a boat in Melbourne, and told her about me (I think that’s what happened). Isobel
invited me to EAFL 2010 in Dubai.
(I don’t seem to get invited to literary festivals run by men – like that muddy field,
near the Welsh border, I’ve always wanted to visit.)
FRIDAY 5 MARCH
The Emirates limo comes for me at 6:45 am. Unfortunately, none of the neighbours
is likely to notice it at this time, even though I gave strict instructions, at the
time of booking, that the driver is not to ring the door bell, but is to sound his
horn loudly several times. He fails to do this and phones me on my mobile instead.
Check-in at Gatwick is swift and painless. I don’t even have to try my regular technique
of smiling, being humble, and projecting a positive energy to the woman at the counter
– I don’t need to be upgraded, I’m already in Business Class! (Wait a moment – is
it possible to get upgraded to First?) She, nonetheless, is very friendly and courteous,
and even suggests a better seat than the one I have been pre-assigned.
Security at Gatwick is swift, efficient and polite. I’m not sure why the media make
such a fuss about it.
Have breakfast in the Emirates Lounge. It was definitely worth skipping dinner last
When I stroll to the gate, there is no queue at all – I’m one of the very last to
board the plane. I’m in no hurry, since I don’t have to compete for overhead storage
What can I say about the Emirates service? I think my expression conveys it.
My only complaint about the flight – it’s much too short.
Arrive at Dubai Airport and a very nice Emirates person meets me and escorts me through
Passport Control. Now, here’s the funny part. Before the Festival itself begins,
I’m staying with my old friend and former colleague Sean Wheeler – who is now a management
consultant based in Dubai. But he’s flying in from Booz Allen’s regional headquarters
in Beirut tonight, and I have to wait for him in Baggage Claim, for five hours!
Strangely, the time passes incredibly swiftly. I do some e-mail, using the free
wireless broadband. I exchange texts with a recruiter about interview arrangements
for a job. I call Milton by video-Skype on my Dell Inspiron Mini (with built-in
camera, mic and speakers), and show him and his kids around the huge and impressive
baggage area. I consume a latte and a chocolate muffin from Costa. I listen to
the peaceful and de-stressing Gayatri Mantra on my iPod. I freshen up in the ablutions
room and visit the prayer hall. I help a Dutchman who (surprisingly for a Dutchman)
speaks no English, find the right conveyor belt for his luggage.
It’s time for Sean to arrive. He looks younger and slimmer than ever. I ask him
if he paid for his flat stomach, or did it himself.
A car takes us to his tasteful and very comfortable apartment at Dubai Marina. He
says he hardly spends any time here. He runs around between Beirut, Abu Dhabi and
Kuwait. He gets a generous tax free salary and this lovely apartment. I give him
Retire to bed at 3 am.
(Bond strode across the hotel room, turned off the air conditioner, and flung open
the French windows slid open the patio door.)
SATURDAY 6 MARCH
I am awoken by the delightful dawn chorus – from all directions the harmonious sound
of pneumatic drills (Amer: ‘jack-hammers’), the steady repetitive clunk-clunk-clunk
of heavy hammer hitting metal bolt, and the beep-beep-beep of reversing trucks.
Business in Dubai may have eased back somewhat, but construction is alive and kicking.
Sean’s apartment has long terraces, with fantastic views of Dubai Marina. Luxury
apartment buildings sweep across the horizon, each one unique, some still being built.
Directly across the marina is an amazing ‘twisted’ building under construction.
On demand: fruit or chocolate?
Sean makes a smoothie for breakfast.
After breakfast, we go for a walk along the marina, past the countless apartment
buildings – many still under construction. Everywhere there are men from the Indian
subcontinent, in blue boiler suits, toiling wearily under the unrelenting sun. I’m
only walking and I’m uncomfortably hot – they are doing heavy labour. I feel sombre
We end up inside Dubai Marina Shopping Mall. Inside the mall, it looks exactly like
America – the stores and even the demographics of the people.
A traditional Arab market
KFC – Kuwaiti Fried Chicken?
‘Can I get Viagra without a prescription? It’s for a friend.’
This is so not Saudi Arabia
Finally, Sean leads me to the beach, which seems quite popular. Sean enjoys Dubai.
His only complaint is the British people who get completely drunk and then do stupid
things like having sex in public. Amongst the Western expats, this bad behaviour
seems to be a peculiarly British trait. The Americans don’t do it. The Scandinavians
don’t do it. The mainland Europeans don’t do it. Why do the British have to behave
this way? (Sean is American.)
Another idiosyncrasy is that all dating websites are blocked in Dubai. This is because
they are equated with sexual immorality. This is rather unfortunate and counter-productive.
It makes it very hard for expatriates to meet other expatriates (for legitimate and
respectable moral purpose of marriage), except through work and by going to awful
nightclubs. But the kind of person I’d want to meet wouldn’t be in an awful nightclub
– she would have an intelligently written profile on a respectable introduction site.
I won’t be able to check if I have any messages on e-Harmony, Love and Friends, My
Single Friend, DatingDirect, Match.com and Kindred Spirits whilst I’m out here.
They’ll just have to wait.
SUNDAY 7 MARCH
In the morning a car comes to take me to a public library for the pre-Festival press
conference. I meet Yann Martel (‘Life of Pi’), Isobel Abulhoul (the Festival Director),
Vivienne Wordley (the Programme Director), Saeed Al Naboudah (Dubai Culture and Arts
Authority), Jeremy Brinton (CEO of Magrudy’s, Dubai’s leading bookshop chain), James
Mullan (Communications Director of EAFL), and Boutros Boutros of Emirates Airline.
Isobel Abulhoul, Saeed Al Naboudah and Boutros Boutros address the media audience,
and then it’s the turn of the ‘two honoured guest writers’. I am up first and manage
to make the audience laugh with a few anecdotes. Yann Martel is up after me and
says,’I’m not as funny or eloquent as Imran.’ (He won the Booker, though.) What
a nice guy. Thanks mate!
Seated L to R: Saeed Al Naboudah, Isobel Abulhoul, Boutros Boutros
I think she likes me!
Yann Martel is up after me.
See, she’s not looking at him with the same smile.
Afterwards, people are taking turns to interview us. An Arab journalist has an Arabic
translation of my Bio (http://www.unimagined.org/bio.html) and a translator. The
self-deprecating humour of my Bio has been lost in translation.
‘At university, you failed to impress women.’ It’s an accusation.
‘You are a management consultant in IT, but you don’t know anything about computers.’
He sounds outraged.
Oh dear – I think the Arabic edition could be quite a challenge.
MONDAY 8 MARCH
This afternoon they send a taxi to collect me for a television interview in Magrudy’s
bookshop at Dubai Festival City. (Magrudy’s is the official bookshop for EAFL.)
I am interviewed by a perky chap called Layne Redwood, from London.
They want to film me flicking through a book off the shelf. I usually seek every
avenue possible to publicise my own book (Unimagined), but on this occasion, after
careful consideration, I decide that it would look really cheesy (and not entirely
plausible) if I flick through my own book, so I pick up one of William Dalrymple’s
books instead (because this may endear me to him and he is on the board of a literary
festival I have not been invited to yet).
In the evening, I’m on the phone speaking to my agent at Curtis Brown in London.
I tell Shaheeda that I really want to get an Arabic publisher out of EAFL.
She replies: ‘I wonder if Bloomsbury Qatar will be there. They would really love
TUESDAY 9 MARCH
Before he leaves for Abu Dhabi, Sean gives me a number to call for his regular ‘taxi
service’. I book a cab to take my luggage and me to Festival City, for the start
of EAFL 2010.
The vehicle arrives and it’s a limo, not a ‘taxi’. Sean and I live in different
worlds. I realise on the way that I won’t have enough cash to pay him, so I get
him to stop at an ATM on the way, in a shopping mall. (How many shopping malls are
The InterContinental hotel at Dubai Festival City is magnificent. The limo stops
outside and a porter immediately runs up to take my luggage from the boot (Amer:
‘trunk’). I proceed inside to the Front Desk.
Behind the desk she is very welcoming and efficient, and checks me in. While she’s
doing this, the porter comes up to speak with her, and she tells him my room number.
Finally, she gives me a voucher for lunch at Bistro Madeleine and my room key card.
‘Your luggage is already in your room, sir,’ she says, reassuringly.
The elevator is smooth, near-silent and state-of-the-art. It has an American female
voice. She sounds familiar – I think I was supposed to call her once. I am accelerated
to the 19th floor.
The room has the same feel of absolute quality. A totally solid tinted window (space
station standard) filters the sunlight, blocks all noise and dust, and looks out
over a marina and fairground.
The luggage isn’t in the room, but I really didn’t expect it to be here already.
I am anxious to unpack, shower, change into something casual-but-elegant, and start
the mingling. Who will be my new best friend? Martin Amis? William Dalrymple?
Jacqueline Wilson? Alexander McCall Smith? Yann Martel? Kate Adie? Or will Vikas
Swarup (whom I met in Bali at UWRF 2009) retain that title?
(Actually, I can tell you for a fact that it won’t be Martin Amis, because everyone
knows he’s Islamophobic and I hate him.)
But I need my luggage to start this process. I wait 20 minutes, and then I call
‘I’m still waiting for my luggage.’
‘I’ll have it sent straightaway, sir.’
I wait another 20 minutes, which is as reasonable as I can be, and then call again.
‘I’m still waiting for my luggage.’
‘Your luggage is in your room, sir.’
‘No, it isn’t!’ I snap.
‘I’ll look into it right away, sir.’
Okay, I get it. I know what’s happening here. When you are a spiritually advanced
person like me, who’s read all the books, you acquire the status of having a CSA
– Certificate of Spiritual Advancement. But, like an MOT certificate (vehicle roadworthiness
test), it needs to be periodically revalidated. What’s happening here is that I
am having my advanced spiritual status routinely tested for an updated CSA. This
is so obvious to someone of my spiritual rank.
This is going to be perfectly straightforward. I have come a long way in my spiritual
journey and may even be up for a further promotion. I am not going to get my ego
wrapped around this completely inconsequential issue of delayed luggage. When he
comes with my suitcases, I am going to project only peace, love and joy from my heart.
I’m going to smile with absolute authenticity. When he apologises for my luggage
being so late, I am going to proclaim with an Australian level of friendliness, ‘No
worries!’ and I am going to completely mean it.
Finally, there’s a knock on the door, and a young, male voice calls ‘Luggage!’
This is my moment. Jesus and Deepak Chopra will be so impressed.
I open the door. He is standing there, a young man, possibly from the Philippines,
in the smart hotel uniform. He is smiling pleasantly.
But, he has no luggage.
Instead, he walks in, strides past me, saying at the same time (in a perky voice
without more than a hint of smugness), ‘Your luggage is in the cupboard, sir’.
He flings open the doors of the huge wardrobe, to reveal … emptiness.
I completely lose it.
‘How stupid do you think I am?!’ I snap. ‘Do you really think I wouldn’t have looked
in the wardrobe? Find my luggage!!!’
He flees. The door swings shut.
I collapse in the armchair. I failed! I completely failed! You got me!
Showered and refreshed, and an hour later than planned, I saunter down to Bistro
Here’s Vivienne Wordley talking to James Meek, who’s just finishing his lunch. I
say hello and sit at the adjacent table. Vivienne wanders off, and James is just
getting up when a couple come in and greet him – an Englishman and an Arab woman
with long, frizzy hair. They introduce themselves as Andy and Nadia. They take
James’ table and start chatting with me. The Englishman hands me his card.
It says: ‘Andy Smart, Bloomsbury Qatar’.
‘I don’t believe it!’ I exclaim. ‘I was hoping to meet you!’
‘And I was hoping to meet you. I read your book recently and we’d like to publish
it in Arabic.’
‘It’s a deal!’
We shake hands.
I’m so glad my luggage was an hour late (they had put it in the wardrobe of the wrong
Before retiring for the night, I show Milton and his children around the hotel lobby,
using video-Skype on my computer. Jacqueline Wilson arrives and kindly agrees to
say hello and wave at her two young fans on the screen. They giggle and wave back.
Jacqueline says ‘Isn’t technology amazing?’
I wander along to the Festival venue – a series of ballrooms and meeting rooms.
There are scores of people at work, amidst what looks, superficially, like chaos.
But the Festival begins in just a few hours!
How can they possibly be ready in time?
WEDNESDAY 10 MARCH
Breakfast is absolutely magnificent. Dubai is going to kill me, but I will die happy
We writers all report for a media photo shoot in the morning. They make us all line
up against the wall - with those same two beautiful Emirates Airline flight attendants
from the press conference - and stand opposite us taking photos. We are blinded
by an onslaught of flashes.
We are writers, not movie stars, but please do carry on.
The Opening Ceremony is magnificent, and conducted in English and Arabic, with simultaneous
Sima Abedrabboh is the MC, and introduces His Excellency Mohammad Al Murr (Vice Chairman
– Dubai Arts and Culture Authority), Maurice Flanagan (Executive Vice Chairman –
Emirates Airline), Isobel Abulhoul (Festival Director).
HE Mohammad Al Murr
Around one hundred (or more) schoolchildren then execute a wonderful performance
on the power of literature – all dressed as fictional characters.
An amazing performance by the children. Stunning!
This kid thinks he’s James Bond – that’s my turf!
The Festival kicks off with Isobel Abulhoul hosting a panel discussion with Rauda
al-Hallami, Sharazad al-Jaziri, Reem al-Gurg, Nadine Touma, Andy Smart and Polly
Dunbar. Then it’s ‘Lunch for VIPs and Authors’ (Hey! Shouldn’t that be Authors and
To my left: highly intelligent Robert Gates and Yann Martel.
To my right: highly intelligent and extremely gorgeous Michelle Paver and Polly Dunbar.
The right side wins on points.
Suddenly, EAFL 2010 is in full swing – the energy in the air is amazing. It’s hard
to believe this is only the second year. Like much of Dubai, it’s a vision which
has sprung from the desert in absolutely no time at all (but obviously with considerable
dedication and commitment by Isobel and her team, and the sponsors).
In the afternoon, there’s an author hospitality event – ‘Walking tour of Old Dubai’.
Our guide is Ken Jackson – a delightful Englishman of the ‘old school’. He takes
us to the market, across the Creek on a boat, to a delightful waterside restaurant,
and to Dubai Museum.
Jacqueline Wilson emerges from spice shop
Which of you is the most famous, then?
He wasn’t very friendly
Ken tells a story during our walkabout, which I find particularly disturbing. He
was in a Dubai supermarket, when an English woman walked in, pointed at one of the
Indian employees hovering around to help, and called, ‘You, Boy, come over here!’
Ken immediately said, ‘Madam, that is no way to treat a fellow human being. If you
are an example of what it means to be British today, then I renounce my citizenship.’
The woman told him to ‘**** off’.
Ken replied, ‘That is the kind of response I would expect from someone of your class,
He immediately went up to the Indians, hugged them and said, ‘You are rich in everything
except money. She has nothing except money.’
The woman was embarrassed and left.
Andy Smart tells another story. He was in a Dubai restaurant and nearby was a group
of youngish British men, and they were laughingly telling each other stories of what
they’d done to make their Filipino maids cry.
Again, here’s that theme of the British in Dubai. Not all, by any means, but a significant
number of absolute riff raff who have found their way here, and behave terribly.
Ken Jackson really knows his stuff
We have dinner in a lovely little restaurant in some secluded back alleyway, then
hurry back on the coach to see the Martin Amis event.
I go sullenly, in order to see what the nasty man has to say, and get a seat right
at the front.
He takes me completely by surprise …
‘Only a moron would not respect [the Prophet] Mohammed … possibly the most influential
man in history … ’
‘The problem isn’t Islam, it’s Al-Qaeda.’
‘More than 95 per cent of Muslims are horrified by this ridiculous, nihilistic wing
and should not be connected verbally or otherwise with these extremists.’
Martin explains that when he said, immediately after 9/11, that there was an urge
to profile, inconvenience and harass Muslims, the ‘there is an urge’ part was not
emphasised by the media, implying that he believed this should be done, whereas he
was against ‘collective punishment’.
Oh, so I got him completely wrong. I made assumptions and misjudged him. This is
particularly serious in my case, because I am spiritually advanced and should know
Martin Amis in conversation with Paul Blezard.
It was about writing, I think.
I wait for Martin Amis in the Green Room and tell him I had misjudged him and was
deeply touched by what he said. I give him a signed copy of my book.
Retire to bed, exhausted (and alone – just as well). This was just the first day.
I lie in bed, thinking about the writers invited to EAFL. I don’t know much about
the Arabic writers (to be honest), but the English-language writers are easily categorised.
Tier 1 is Martin Amis. Tier 2 includes the likes of Jacqueline Wilson and Alexander
McCall Smith – less highbrow than Martin Amis, but very widely read. Tier 3 would
have Yann Martel and Vikas Swarup – relative newcomers who don’t have the long career
history and volume of works of Tier 2. Tier 4 would be everyone else. Tier 5 would
be me. What am I doing here? There’s obviously been a mistake. I just have to
keep my mouth shut and my head down, and I should be able to get through this before
THURSDAY 11 MARCH
Who has sushi for breakfast? Moi!
It’s Education Day in the morning. We writers are standing in the hotel lobby, waiting
to being taken away to different places. I have been assigned Dubai Women’s College.
That’s good – with my youthful appearance, I should fit right in (apart from being
a man, of course). And the students will think I’m a famous writer from the West
– they won’t know any better.
Robin Bishop, the Library Supervisor, picks me up in a car. She is from Canada.
The faculty of Dubai Women’s College has many North Americans and Europeans. The
audience of female students is across the board – from jeans and modern hairstyles
to full black burkha with only eyes barely visible. My talk does seem to go well
– they do laugh, and afterwards they queue up to get books signed. Some of them
buy two, even three, copies.
Look at the hair – not even the slightest bald patch
Robin drives me in her convertible back to Festival City in time to be taken on a
double-decker coach to the World Trade Centre for lunch. I finally meet Kate Adie
– my book languishes next to hers in the Biography section of bookshops.
How much do they expect us to eat?
I’m supposed to be having a job interview in Kuala Lumpur next week, but I get an
e-mail telling me it won’t be until the week of 22 March – so I decide to extend
my stay in Dubai to the end of next week. I tell the Festival travel person, Mary
Ann, and she tells me that there will be a £200 change fee.
Technically, I’m sure there is a fee, but they won’t actually charge me, because
I’m an ‘honoured guest writer’ of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
In the evening, the major hospitality event is the Desert Safari. We are taken to
the desert, initially by coach, and then by 4x4 for the final stretch to the camp.
I got to sit next to Polly Dunbar on the coach!
Martin Amis survived the crazy 4x4 drive over the dunes
Famous writers in the desert, inter alia: Martin Amis, Jacqueline Wilson, Alexander
McCall Smith, Yann Martel, Vikas Swarup, Kate Adie, James Meek, Imran Ahmad (Hey!
– whose website are you reading now?)
Vikas Swarup shows Jacqueline Wilson the nifty new videocam
he bought with some of the money from ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
After the falconry demonstration, we get a chance to sand ski and to ride camels.
I ride a camel with Polly Dunbar, clinging on for dear life. As the ride comes to
an end, a voice from somewhere warns: ‘Watch out for the sudden lurch.’ The camel
descends, and then suddenly there is a severe lurch to the front. I scream. Then
a severe lurch to the back. I scream. As we dismount, I explain to Polly Dunbar;
‘Those were cries of surprise, not fear.’
Polly Dunbar gets henna-ed. Beautiful!
The desert camp is very authentic, with a bar, a sumptuous buffet dinner, many seating
areas with electric fans, and a number of bathrooms with running water.
Did I mention I’m best friends with Vikas Swarup?
Martin Amis and others withdraw to a tent with hookahs.
(If only there was an audio version of this blog.)
The whirling dervish is stunning.
‘It looked easy’, thinks Alice Kuipers.
I finally got a date! She’s lovely!
We are taken back to the coach in the 4x4s. As the coach is heading back, I notice
that Polly Dunbar is not on it. Nor are Martin Amis and a few others. Have they
been left behind in the desert? Should I say something? Should I raise the alarm?
But what if there’s an alternative arrangement – perhaps a second coach? (But we
all came in one coach.) If I make a fuss, and then discover that there is an arrangement
in place – that would be so embarrassing. Much worse than Polly and the others being
left in the desert. I decide to say nothing. What’s most important is that I’m
alright, safe and well, and heading back to the InterContinental Hotel, Jack.
FRIDAY 12 MARCH
Who has Mongolian Barbecue for breakfast? Moi!
This is the big day – the day of my event. I eat a moderate breakfast and work out
in the gym, in order to be in peak form. I practise pulling my stomach in as far
as I can.
Polly Dunbar runs a wonderful, lively session in the morning. (There was a second
Polly Dunbar’s lively session on ‘Stories, Drawing and Puppets’.
Kate Adie is always in demand for signing.
Polly Dunbar and Alexander McCall Smith sign the Writers’ Board.
The Green Room
Sima Abedrabboh is the host for my event
My event is at 5 pm. It is unusual, in that it is not a panel event, or a famous
writer in an armchair being interviewed by a slightly-less-famous writer in the other
armchair. Mine is a stand-up performance event, with me walking about on the stage
delivering a literary narrative for a full hour. I get the logistics people to clear
the stage completely.
Sima Abedrabboh introduces me from the front row, and then I walk up on stage from
behind a screen. The audience is a good size, and is right across the board – from
casually dressed Western people to women in black tents, with even their eyes veiled.
Is this the right occasion to field test my new joke about sex? I designed, developed
and tested this joke in laboratory conditions, but never at a ‘real’ event. And
is this the right environment for such a joke? I decide to go for it. The audience
laughs, except the black burkhas. Then, five seconds later, the black burkhas laugh
too (oh yes, the translation time lag).
I must be dreaming
My signing queue is long. Even the beautiful Emirates flight attendants get copies
signed. Then a Magrudy’s man comes up and takes the display copy from the signing
table. ‘This is the last copy’, he says, ‘and someone wants to buy it.’
The last copy is bought by Jody from Minnesota.
Afterwards, I feel drained and exhilarated. It’s over! Now I can just have fun.
The evening entertainment for the writers is a dinner cruise on a dhow.
On the bus, I hear another story about British behaviour in Dubai. An 18-year-old
man came over from the UK to visit his father, who was working here. The young man
went out, got drunk, and ended-up sitting on a wall, looking poorly. A police car
came by, and the officers called him over. He ignored them. They called him again.
He gave them ‘the finger’. Now, I know that in Britain, police officers would be
expected to respond to ‘the finger’ with a courteous “Oh, thank you very much, sir,”
or face charges for violating the young man’s human rights. But in Dubai, they arrested
him, put him in a cell, and it took a lot of effort to get him out again.
They weren’t expecting so many of us.
Should I give up my seat for the old man, the women, or the child?
An impossible decision – better to stay seated and stare at the floor.
A traditional Arab dhow
Imran Ahmad (R) and Martin Amis’s right shoulder. (I was too afraid to ask the
Jacqueline Wilson is very approachable
Ghada Karmi (‘In Search of Fatima’) – an extremely vivacious and fiery woman.
(Too hot for me to handle.)
Standing room only on the bus back (no exception for VIPs, Kate).
SATURDAY 13 MARCH
Who has Chinese food for breakfast? Moi! (And Chinese people.)
Vikas Swarup gets his breakfast
Michelle Paver has hers with me
Jeremy Brinton, CEO of Magrudy’s, announces the upcoming sessions
Nadia Fouda and Andy Smart present a fascinating and delightful session
on the challenges of translating children’s stories into Arabic.
Another radio session
A beautifully designed event
Polly Dunbar on Dubai Radio
Aspiring author Yann Martel gets a book signed by James Meek
Aspiring author Michelle Faver gets a book signed by James Meek
An impromptu interview for Emirates in-flight radio.
The seating proximity looks a bit Economy class to me.
I give encouragement to aspiring writers.
Isobel Abulhoul – Festival Director (centre)
Alexander McCall Smith
The Authorspeak board: See what I wrote (top right), so they’ll invite me back.
A brilliant and highly engaging session on ‘Page to Screen’.
With Programme Director Vivienne Wordley.
(She worked incredibly hard to make it all run smoothly.)
The final panel event: ‘In Search of Modern India’
The Writers’ Board - completed
We depart on a double-decker bus for our final event – dinner at the house of Mr
& Mrs Maurice Flanagan (Executive ViceChairman of Emirates Airline and Group).
Yann Martel looks smugly content. (I’d be looking smug too, if I was married to
A warm welcome
Dinner in the back garden
I sit next to Mark Twain – he’s in great shape!
Vivienne Wordley has the final word.
We return on the double-decker bus and all hug ‘goodbye’ outside the hotel. This
is the part I always hate.
Ahdaf Soueif (right): ‘In the Eye of the Sun’
Kate Adie and I have been together for three years (in the Biography section).
Joe and Lou Abercrombie
Sigh! Polly Dunbar must be at least 25. I’m only … hang on …
I’ll remember in a moment …
It’s all over.
SUNDAY 14 MARCH
Who has everything for breakfast? Moi!
A final breakfast with Nadia and Andy
I wander down to the Festival location. There’s no evidence that it ever happened.
Literary festival? What literary festival?
I pack, have a final lunch in Bistro Madeleine, and take a taxi back to Sean’s apartment
at Dubai Marina.
MONDAY 15 MARCH
Work on this write-up. Do you have any idea how long it takes to sort out the photographs,
with hundreds to choose from?
There are cigarette butts all over Sean’s balcony. One has burnt a hole in a sun
lounger. Sean tells me, with tired resignation, that there’s an Italian DJ on the
29th floor who throws his butts from his balcony and doesn’t give a damn what they
do down below.
There is so much to see and investigate in Dubai, I decide to extend my stay by flying
direct to Kuala Lumpur from Dubai (instead of from London), and then return to Dubai
again, before finally returning to London next week. I tell Mary Ann, and she tells
me that there will be another £200 change fee.
Technically, I’m sure there is a fee, but they won’t actually charge me, because
I’m an ‘honoured guest writer’ of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
TUESDAY 16 MARCH
Relaxing at Dubai Marina, I read on the BBC News website that David Schwimmer of
Friends, who is about my age, just got engaged to a 24-year-old. Also, that impotence
is linked to heart attacks.
WEDNESDAY 17 MARCH
I’m invited back to Dubai Women’s College, this time to address the PM students.
These women typically have jobs, and many are married and bringing up families.
And, in addition, they are studying for degrees. Although most are in black gowns,
and a few are fully veiled, they don’t seem oppressed to me. (I’m not a fan or
supporter of the face veil.)
A fully veiled woman asks me, in perfect English, where she can get a copy of my
I’m so bored of hearing myself speak
The College’s Finance person, Atiq Siddiqi – a British man of Pakistani origin –
gives me a ride back to Dubai Marina. On the way, he takes me to see the Palm Jumeirah
and Atlantis hotel.
Atiq says that trucks drove in around the clock for about five years, dumping boulders
into the sea to create the island. The scale of the place is breathtaking.
The Palm certainly is luxurious, and a great place for families to bring up children
in absolute comfort and safety, but I think I prefer the buzz of Dubai Marina.
THURSDAY 18 MARCH
Relaxing, doing this write-up, and exploring jobs in Dubai.
Sunset at Dubai Marina
FRIDAY 19 MARCH
I visit Art Dubai, which is a magnificent exhibition of contemporary art, laid on
by (I estimate) over a hundred individual exhibitors (galleries and individual artists).
With His Highness Sheikh Muhammad, Crown Prince and Ruler of Dubai:
‘Is it possible to get something like a knighthood, Your Excellency? How about
I don’t know much about Art, but I do appreciate getting to see so much original
work in one afternoon.
Modern art is so varied and amazing
In the evening, I wait in Starbucks at Dubai Marina to meet Wael Al-Sayegh – Emirati
writer, poet and cultural consultant (http://www.waelalsayegh.com/). Dr Reed of
Dubai Women’s College put us in touch, and when we spoke on the phone, it turned
out that Wael was at my EAFL event.
I’m expecting a stereotypical Emirati in an immaculate white robe, but he appears
in jeans and a T-shirt, and with a perfect English accent – with the slightest tang
of Scottish. We have a long and insightful conversation.
Wael tells me that Dubai used to be the butt of local humour in this region. It
was considered to be an undeveloped backwater. There was a phrase equivalent to
the English: ‘When Hell freezes over.’ It was: ‘When Dubai gets a police force.’
Now look at the place. Sure, there have been mistakes, but Dubai has undergone a
century’s worth of development in about a decade – they have learned many lessons
along the journey in an accelerated way. People outside are quick to judge this
region, without an appreciation of the pace and extent of change. The UAE now has
women judges, which was only a relatively recent development in the United Kingdom.
The ‘public displays of affection’ incidents are not being reported fairly in the
British press. (Again, this seems to be a peculiarly British problem.) Alcohol
is always involved. Some British people do not seem to appreciate that, just because
alcohol is available here, it does not mean that excessive consumption and drunken,
lewd behavior in public are acceptable. They forget that they are in a conservative,
Islamic country, and instead behave with a colonial arrogance (without the colonial
dignity), showing no respect for the local authorities.
In the notorious ‘sex on the beach’ case, the police officer in attendance instructed
the British couple to ‘stop and go home’. On returning to find the behavior still
in progress, he again advised them to ‘stop and go home’ and was then assailed with
a torrent of racist and religious abuse – particularly from the woman. They basically
provoked him into taking formal action and the wheels of the system started to turn.
(This is entirely consistent with what Sean told me about this case, and completely
missing from the British media accounts.)
Wael tells me that the ‘old school’ of British settlers in Dubai appreciate the prevailing
dignity and self-discipline (which has been lost in contemporary Britain), making
it a good place to bring up their children, but there are many amongst the recent
comers who have no such values, and behave in this lewd, insensitive and arrogant
Saturday 20 March
Fly to Kuala Lumpur for job interview.
Sunday 21 March
Arrive in Kuala Lumpur in early hours. Sleep, workout, and study the company I’m
being interviewed by.
The Guardian’s write-up of EAFL 2010 mentions me! Polly Dunbar kindly e-mails me
a scan of it from England.
‘Imran Ahmad delivered a perky stand-up turn about the publication of his memoir
‘Perky!’ What a frivolous, slapdash word to use about someone. I would never do
that. Why couldn’t she write something like ‘passionate and spell-binding’?
Monday 22 March
Attend several interviews, get taken to dinner, and shown around Kuala Lumpur at
We also build towers
Tuesday 23 March
Get taken to massive lunch, feel sleepy, get offered job, and fly back to Dubai at
Wednesday 24 March
Arrive in Dubai in early hours. Rest, sunbathe, swim, enjoy the last day.
Thursday 25 March
Early morning: Emirates limo takes me to airport, for return to London.
Emirates wants me to pay £400 for the return date changes! But, I’m an ‘honoured
guest writer’! The young woman behind the counter doesn’t know anything about that
– only that the computer is telling her to take £400 from me, or I can’t check-in.
It’s not her fault. I hand over my debit card with only peace, love and joy in my
heart and an honest smile on my face. It’s just possible I may get my CSA back.
Things Wrong With Dubai
·No recycling. Given the volume of packaged goods consumption, Dubai should
have a recycling programme, to improve its environmental credentials.
·Blocking of dating sites. The expatriate life can be very lonely. Expats
do not have the family networks necessary for respectable introductions. Dating
sites do not, of themselves, encourage sexual recklessness. The alternatives to
dating sites – random meetings in clubs and on beaches – are much more likely to
lead to promiscuity and less likely to lead to stable and respectable relationships.
·Italian DJ on 29th floor of Oceanic Tower at Dubai Marina throws his cigarette
butts off his balcony and doesn’t give a damn about the consequences to those below.