‘How stupid do you think I am?!’

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 various companies. 

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.) 


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 night.

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 space. 

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 my résumé.

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.)


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 about it.

Dubai Marina!

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.


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.


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). 

It’s here (after 9 minutes elapsed time):


With Layne Redwood at Magrudy’s bookshop

The outdoor walkways around Dubai Festival City

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 your book.’


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 there here?)

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 the Concierge. 

‘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 Madeleine. 

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 room). 

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?


Breakfast is absolutely magnificent.  Dubai is going to kill me, but I will die happy (and full).

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 translation.

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 other VIPs?)

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, madam.’

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 better.

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 anyone notices. 


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?)

Falconry demonstration

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. 


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 coach, apparently.)

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 face.)

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).


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 Alice Kuipers.)

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. 


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.



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.


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. 


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 book.

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.


Relaxing, doing this write-up, and exploring jobs in Dubai.

Sunset at Dubai Marina


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 a condo?’

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 manner. 

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 Unimagined.’

‘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 night.

We also build towers

Tuesday 23 March

Get taken to massive lunch, feel sleepy, get offered job, and fly back to Dubai at night.

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.

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Contact & Speaking.
Contact & Speaking.