LitFest present and future: what Ahlam Bolooki thinks

Earlier this year the Emirates Literature Foundation announced two new senior appointments to the LitFest team: Jennifer Malton took on the role of Chief Operating Officer, and Ahlam Bolooki became the Festival Director in succession to Isobel Abulhoul – who actually established the Festival back in 2008.

Ahlam Bolooki thus took over as the main advocate and spokesperson for the Festival, responsible for its development and delivery, running its budget, and generally meeting its goals.

She joined from a four-year stint at Dubai Tourism, latterly as the Head of Regional Campaigns at Dubai Tourism. Her background is actually in hospitality marketing, and before Dubai Tourism she spent more than four years in marketing and communications for Jumeirah group.

That made her an interesting choice. The trustees of the Emirates Literature Foundation have gone for someone well versed in branding and brand management, development of creative briefs across a variety of different types of marketing campaigns, and dealing with internal and external stakeholders. Her brief includes developing marketing plans “that increases national and ultimately international reach, increases ticket sales and diversifies audiences”.

With the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature approaching fast, we wanted to find out what kind of Festival Director Ahlam Bolooki would be. How does she see LitFest’s role and her own role at LitFest?


magpie: What do you see as the principal roles of LitFest? Is it educational, trying to develop a culture of reading and book-loving? Is it to provide the audience with a broader smorgasbord of literary options and open their eyes to the possibilities? Is it comforting, allowing the audience to see their favourite authors up close? Is it commercial – do you have any responsibility to help the development of bookselling and book publishing in the UAE? What’s the relative balance between these (and indeed any other elements)?

Ahlam Bolooki: All of the above. But in terms of balance, the Emirates Literature Foundation supports the four key pillars of building a reading community: readers, writers, publishers and librarians. The Emirates Literature Foundation does this through a number of initiatives, including the Festival, in order to create an ecosystem in which literature and culture can evolve and flourish.

Whether it is developing a culture of book-loving and book buying, bringing a reader face-to-face with their much-loved author or providing the setting for intelligent conversations that makes people look at things in new ways, they all amount to nurturing a love of reading.

The Festival aims to ignite, fuel and spread the love of stories by bringing together authors and their audiences in the same room. If the love of reading is the fire, the Festival is the kindling for the flame. It is a celebration of stories.

magpie: Many of your authors (and their publishers) come from the English-speaking West; how much do you see LitFest as a local fair, with the local audience the preeminent concern? Or is it part of a wider, even international, approach to reading and writing?

Ahlam Bolooki: The Festival is an international event with a wonderfully dynamic programme that allows our local authors to share the spotlight with their international peers, and we know that benefits them hugely. But our focus is to provide thought-provoking and entertaining content that our audience (which includes all of the expat nationalities as well as Emiratis) wants; and that will always include the best of local and international talent.

This year’s event will welcome more than 185 authors who hail from 37 countries. We are particularly proud that 77 of these are UAE-based writers, out of which over 35 are Emirati authors.

Story telling is in our DNA. Here in the Arab world, we have been gathering in our communities to share our stories since the dawn of time. Celebrating and sharing stories is the natural evolution of all cultures. It strengthens our human bonds across borders; across ethnic, religious and gender divides. And we see this brought to life in the number of people who engage with us; whether they volunteer at the festival, buy tickets to the sessions, attend the master classes, or just come to enjoy the free activities for children in the Family Oasis.

Our local and regional community is at the heart of our festival, and we are close to the hearts of the people.

magpie: How’s the health of the publishing industry at the moment? Are people still reading (and/or writing) books in the face of the digital onslaught and the prevalence of social media? How is uptake in the local population – are Arab-language books being read?

Ahlam Bolooki: The global publishing industry is thriving*, with revenue for book sales and publishing figures seeing a steady rise in the majority of markets around the world. In 2018, movie theatres were packed with films from bestselling book adaptations, a trend that is set to continue.

Across the MENA region the industry has entered a vibrant stage with publishers being bolder and more adventurous in the books they publish and translate. An estimated 10 million people physically attended book fairs and festivals across this region over the past year, which shows the publishing industry is in very rude health*.

The digital onslaught does not spell the death knell for books – far from it. In fact it boosts the celebration of stories. In our digital world, we consume more content than ever before. But you will note that the content we care about is scripted. Someone, somewhere, sat down to write a story.

There is nothing more powerful than connecting with the right story at the right time; whether it is through paper books, e-readers, audio books, or even live readings. How you access the story is less important that the fact that you do. And for some people, being able to listen to a book instantly makes it more accessible to them.

Lack of data makes it difficult to give an accurate picture of the uptake of Arabic language books. The Arab Reading Index conducted in 2016 by the Mohammed bin Rashid Al-Maktoum Foundation (MBRF) in Dubai in collaboration with the UN Development Program revealed that the average Arab citizen gets through around 17 books and reads for 35 hours per year. There are an increasing number of initiatives to support reading in the Arabic language from governments and also the private sector, so these figures can only go up.

Personally I’m very proud of and excited by the many fantastic Arabic sessions during this year’s festival, ranging from a journey of self-discovery with the hugely influential Saudi media-figure Ahmad Alshugairi, several reading and writing workshops, workshops effectiveness in business, Emirati folktales for kids; there really is something for everyone, whether you are a reader or non-reader.

magpie: How does the festival work in terms of selecting authors? Do you start with a wish-list and approach them, or do publishers propose authors with new or hot titles? How much is the content yours, and how much comes from the industry?

While the publishing industry does approach us, our key driver is the Festival Theme. We have a different theme each year, so we always look at how authors and their works fit with our theme. We also follow bestseller lists from around the world, as well as literary prize long- and shortlists such as those for the Man Booker Prize, International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and more. The team and myself also visit international literary festivals and books fairs whenever possible to keep an eye out on global trends and meet new authors.

But we are an organisation full of readers, so we all have our own personal wishlists that we look at too. We also ask our community who they would most like to see.

magpie: What developments do you foresee for the Festival in the future? What new elements would you like to introduce – or is the current template strong enough as it is? Is there a risk of diluting the Festival’s identity by adding more twiddly bits and extras?

The success of the Festival speaks for itself – going from 65 to 180 authors in 10 years, and with visitor numbers increasing from 20,000 in 2009 to 41,780 in 2018. With each year’s different theme, we will introduce new elements that bring the theme alive and engages our audiences. The ‘twiddly bits and extras’ are all part of the reason why ours is such a popular event – for four years running we have been voted the Best Arts and Cultural Event at the Middle East Special Event Awards.

As long as the new elements continue to nurture a love of reading, keep our visitors inspired and entertained, we will keep introducing them. I’d like to see the Festival evolve with the evolution of books and continue to support the written word in whatever shape it takes in the future.

magpie: Do you have any idea of a realistic target for growth over say the next five years? And where will that growth come from – is the balance in the audience and the authors going to shift more towards Arabic?

I want to build on these numbers and attract more young people to engage with the festival in the years to come. That means we are looking at our programme, our marketing, and our tone of voice to be more accessible to the youth while still keeping our loyal fans happy with the content we know they enjoy.

The success of the Festival is not purely identified by growth in number of authors or attendees, rather what matters more to us is the quality of the programme and level of engagement it creates. We want to continue to touch the lives of everyone who walks through the doors of our Festival. We hope to grow but still be able to give audiences the intimate experience they have with the authors. That is true success by our definition.

A big part of my focus will also be building the Festival’s Arabic programme, both from the perspective of reaching a wider Arabic audience regionally and locally, as well as making Arabic literature more accessible to the English-speaking community.

magpie: You came with a strong track record in tourism marketing rather than a background in publishing. How do you see your own role developing in succession to Isobel Abulhoul? What will you bring to shaping the future of LitFest?

I personally feel as though every role I’ve been in has shaped me for this exact job. The Festival is an incredible tourism asset and a strong selling point to visitors from the Middle East – it is the only event in the whole region with such an incredible combination of speakers and sessions, offering everything from enlightenment to entertainment and from self-development to family fun.

I hope that with my extensive background in Marketing and PR that I will be able reach new audiences and take our Festival further than it’s ever been. My love of writing and reading has always been a hobby, and I count myself to be very lucky to be one of the very few people whose hobbies turn into their careers.

magpie: What are you most looking forward to at the 2019 Festival? Any particular favourites authors and/or hot topics?

Too many to narrow down but I will try to select a few. I’m looking forward to seeing Zelda La Grange talk about her book ‘Good Morning Mr Mandela’, and learning how a young woman’s life was utterly transformed by a man she was taught was her enemy. I’m looking forward to the entire Youth Day programme and Chris Gardner in particular – I’m want to ask him what it felt like to go from being homeless to Will Smith playing him in the movie, in one lifetime. Gerd Leonard’s Technology Versus Humanity will explore moral decisions in the face of technology, and how they can alter the meaning of being a human forever. And many more life changing conversations the Festival will have in store …

The 11th Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs 1 to 9 March 2019, mainly at the InterContinental Festival City. Click here for details and bookings.

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