If you should find yourself having tea at the Burj Al Arab this weekend, take a moment to glance at the person at the next table - there's a better chance than usual that it'll be somebody famous. Same thing goes for anyone taking an abra ride on the creek, getting a henna tattoo at a desert camp, or shopping for gold chains at Deira souq: bring an autograph book, just in case. Chris Wright, Dubai National Friday 12 March 2010
I am reading those words over breakfast at the luxurious Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai, and put my paper down. I can indeed look around and see any number of famous authors: Martin Amis, Kate Adie and Alexander McCall Smith, to name but three. And some stellar children's authors, too: Darren Shan, Michelle Paver and Coln Iggulden.
I'm not as well-known as some of the authors at the Dubai LIterary Festival, but one of the organizers had heard me speak in Cambridge and so I got an invitation. That's how I come to be in Dubai the shopping in the Gold Souk with Garth Nix, Joe Abercrombie and Jackie Wilson (above, right), or getting a henna design applied to my hand at the 'Bedouin Desert Experience.' (above, left) According to my newspaper article, last year "the distinguished Chinese writer Jung Chang rode off into the desert on a camel" and she had to be rescued by a man on horseback. And the tour guides "lost three or four authors in the Spice Souq. They were too busy asking questions and didn't follow instructions." But Dubai is a friendly, multi-cultural place with virtually no crime, so getting left behind is not too worrisome.
The Emirates Literary Festival doesn't pay authors an honorarium, but they do something much better. They fly you and a partner business class on Emirates airlines and they put you up in a four star hotel. When we arrived at Dubai's new airport we met children's illustrator Polly Dunbar. As our courier drove us in a golf-cart to passport control Polly said the airport made her feel like Dorothy in the Emerald City. We are whisked through immigration and driven to our hotel, the Intercontinental in an area of Dubai called Festival Village.
Five years ago, says our driver, this was all sand. Now there are canals, a marina, hotels and shopping malls. In the intense and humid heat of summer, the air-conditioned malls are the place to hang out with friends and family. The morning after our arrival I wander around with my husband Richard. Apart from the shop signs in Arabic - TOYS R US, Marks & Spencer, etc - and the exotic attire of the shoppers, I could be at Bluewater or some American supermall. Even the music is ambient eurochill.
Dubai is proud to have lots of record-breaking landmarks. The marina at Festival Village is going to be expanded to become "the longest man made channel in the world" which will result in the resultant piece of isolated land becoming "the largest man-made island in the world". So our guide says. I'm not sure if that is true or not, but at the moment Dubai does have the tallest building in the world, the Burj Khalifa (below). The engineers of this Tolkeinesque spire have even allowed room to add extra floors if another bulding has tries to steal it's claim to glory. Or perhaps I should say its "claim to the Guinness Book of Records".
I am learning all this and seeing quite a bit of Dubai because the organizers have laid on complimentary excursions. They have also given us plenty of free time. In the four days I am here, I only have to do two talks. Even with optional extras like local radio interviews and panel sessions there is still time to soak up the warmth, explore a new country and get to know some of the other authors.
Because of free wi-fi and coffee, I hang out in the Green Room - the authors' sanctuary. On my first morning I meet Paul Blezzard, a charming and dynamic author/networker who rules the Green Room roost from his power corner. We tweet each other from across the room and he points me to his own BLOG and his elegant impressions of the first Dubai Lit Fest last year. Blezzard got to hang out with Kate Adie and Louis de Bernieres, who waxed eloquent about Dubai and likened it to "Ozymandias".
One of the highlights of my trip to Dubai is meeting some literary Dubai twitterers at a Cafe near the InterCon. They are charming, friendly, intelligent, aware, and they hail from all different parts of the world: Pakistan, the Philippines, Palestine, Greece and Russia to name just a few. Alexander McNabb invites me to join his panel about Social Networking and its place in literature, culture and the dissemination of ideas. Chris Cleave joins us and also Paul Blezzard, who namedrops happily. On the screen behind us is a Tweetfall: a real time feed of what all the Twitterers in the audience think of us. There are two conversations going on at one point and laughter from the audience isn't always at what we are saying, but at amusing comments about Paul putting his feet on the chair. (photo above right by Wajiha Said)
Kate Adie is here again this year. She tells us that last year at this time the building sites were crawling with workers. Now the sites and cranes are ominously deserted. And that's saying something considering "a third of the world's cranes are in Dubai." That's according to our guide on one of the final excursions of the Festival, the double-decker bus tour of Dubai. There are only about ten of us on the tour, which took us to see the tallest building, the biggest hotel and the only seven star hotel in the world (the Burj Al Arab, right). It is only on this final day that the appeal of Dubai fades. As we pass the biggest shopping mall in the world, our guide tells us it has an indoor ski slope with "real snow that costs 8,000 barrels of oil per day to maintain".
This shocking fact does not go down well with any of us. Nor does the news that a British couple have been imprisoned for kissing in public. I suddenly realize that Dubai desperately needs to cultivate culture and multiculturality. For that reason alone, the Emirates Lit Fest is a Very Good Thing. Anyone who gets a chance to participate should go for it.