Arriving very early in the morning at Dubai airport, I was welcomed by my hosts in the UAE – the Sharjah International Book Fair – whose representative made me feel like a film star. I was greeted by one of those cute little golf carts that whizzes round airports making an annoying beeping noise (annoying for everyone else, as it says ‘look at me – you have to walk, I’m driving!) to a little lounge where we waited for our paperwork to be done. A gentleman in pristine white dishdasha emerged from the door carrying a bouquet of flowers to welcome me to Sharjah. Julia Roberts step aside! Very curiously, each rose was stamped with the book fair brand.
The Sharjah International Book Fair (or check out the blog here) is in its 29th year, and so is not some ‘new’ cultural bandwagon. Instead, it provides a valuable forum for the reading public, who attend in their hundreds of thousands. In fact, in the first weekend alone, 100,000 visitors were recorded, and 500,000 were estimated for the entire ten day event. Sales topped Dhs.133 million (probably in excess of £25m). In fact, book shopping is so prolific that visitors use a shopping trolley to wheel around their purchases. See this photo taken by the lovely Lisa Dempster who was also attending the fair as a speaker, from Australia.
My invitation to speak at the Book Fair was from Sheikha Bodour, CEO and Founder of Kalimat Publishing House, President of Emirates Publishers Association, Bookworm and Mother of 3. (and daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah – but a feisty firebrand in her own right). Along with inviting me to the book fair itself (I love speaking at book fairs – wonderful places to share ideas and engage with readers), she was kind enough to make time to meet me for a coffee during the fair despite her hectic schedule. I found her extremely personable, creative and visionary. (and no, I’m not sucking up – she really was). I think her leadership in the Fair’s activities will bear great fruit. You can follow her on Twitter. She even signed a copy of her new children’s book for my niece, a colourful and quirky book on girls dressing up with the hijabs from their big sisters and mum’s collection. (and apparently to be published in French. Hurrah!)
The highlight of the visit – and of course it’s main purpose – was to speak to the audience about Love in a Headscarf. It was an excellent opportunity to hear how the themes of love, marriage, identity and self-definition are dealt with in a part of the world which still has a strong
heritage of community and tribal culture in its recent past. The audience was fabulous, sharing their intimate personal stories of love and marriage. One young Emirati woman told of how she had tried to blog about similar issues but was advised by relatives to stop writing for fear of her reputation. Another lady spoke of her worries of finding a spouse for her child given that she was not a native of the Emirates and did not have a network of contacts. One gentleman (yes! there were men there too – fabulous!) spoke of how parents must set an example in their household to train their sons in particular in how to be good husbands and fathers. The session was moderated by the fabulous Mujeeb Rahman, aka Jaihoon. His latest book is a travelogue across India comprised entirely of the tweets he sent during the trip. On his site you’ll find some photos of the author session. You can also read some of the other responses to the Author Session here and here. (google translate them!) An extra thanks also to Rupert Bumfrey and his magnificent work for the book fair on Twitter and the Blogosphere, and for his part in my involvement in the fair.
Whilst I was attending the Sharjah International Book Fair, I was fortunate enough to engage in some interviews. There were some fascinating conversations and I’m always intrigued by how journalists in different countries pick out different aspects of my stories.
I think my favourite interview was with Husam Miro of Al Khaleej. It felt more like a philosophical dialogue than a media story. I only wish we had a first language in common so that I could have turned the tables and interviewed him. As I expressed my intrigue and growing fascination with the UAE he asked “have you been introduced to any intellectuals?”. It was an unexpected but very insightful question given the curiosity that I had expressed. And one that no-one before or since had thought to throw my way. (see my article here before my visit to the UAE, asking what secrets people could tell me about the country. I think he had seen it.)
Here is the article as it was published in Al Khaleej.
Meanwhile, the British Embassy in Dubai invited me to a round table with other arty and cultural types to talk about my experiences as a blogger, writer and erstwhile public figure. Somehow after two glasses of coke and a bowl of peanuts, they managed to persuade me to record this cheesy video about my visit to the UAE and the Sharjah Book Fair.
The evening was a real joy as I got to speak in detail about my experiences, my book and to hear intimate and very insightful comments from the attendees. Among them was Hind Mezaina who writes the thought-provoking and inspiring Culturist Blog, as was Mishal Al Gergawi, who is an Emirati columnist who says it how it is. And Isobel Aboulhoul who co-founded the successful bookshop chain Magrudy’s and who is the festival director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, which has very rapidly become a feature of the international literary calendar. I got a verbal invitation from her to speak at the Festival (Isobel – I will be following that up!), but more than that it was fascinating to hear her own tales of travelling and living in the Gulf. She arrived in 1969 before the UAE even existed – an intriguing story indeed.
And before anyone pipes up in the comments – yes, there is a British Embassy in Abu Dhabi (the capital of the UAE), but in some turn of fate when the Trucial States gained independence from the UK it seems a British Embassy was also retained in Dubai, rather than turning into a Consulate. Go figure. But then I like these historical but somehow pointless quirks.
Perhaps the most challenging and inspiring of the book-related activities I engaged in were a series of visits to schools and universities which cater specifically to young Emirati women. In Abu Dhabi I visited Shohoub School and talked to the 16 year olds. The school was hidden away from the main road, but once inside there is a lively bubbly atmosphere. Although the girls wear the abaya and shela (cloak and scarf) to attend school, once inside they remove both of these since it is an all female environment. They listened wide eyed as I discussed how answering the question ‘Who am I?’ is a critical one to determining one’s place in the world and how to react to it.
A second session was at Zayed University in Abu Dhabi, which is another one of these marvellous Gulf universities. Both in the UAE and in Qatar I have seen such places of higher education springing up, offering the best of facilities. I had been invited by the bubbly media committee and was installed in the main lecture theatre. Similar themes of identity came up, but of course the usually undiscussed subjects of love and marriage – topics which I brought to the fore of the discussion – were busily debated.
And then, it was off to Dubai Women’s College, who managed to pack out their main lecture theatre to the brim with young women, who were interested in the same subjects again. My thanks to all the organisers. It’s a real treat to get immediate interaction with Emiratis, particularly young women who are busy setting themselves on the path to create a better future for themselves and their country. I predict a bright future.
As a change from talking directly to readers, I co-hosted the morning show on Dubai Eye Radio with the very charming and talented Jessica Swann. The two hour phone in show picked up on Love in a Headscarf and talked about arranged and love marriages. The texts and calls came in relentlessly and varied from the downright romantic, to the shocking and gobsmacking. Read about it here in my weekly column. (Love and it’s seeming double standards)
I begin my article: “It’s fine for me to have a ‘love marriage’,” the male caller to the radio show said, “but I won’t accept anything other than an arranged marriage for my sister.” Do have a read, it was quite an incredible show. Alternatively, you can listen to the podcast here.
With all that book-related activity going on, you’d be forgiven for thinking I didn’t get a chance to travel around the UAE. And you might even think there isn’t much to see in the UAE. You’d be wrong on both counts. In fact, I barely got to see much of the country at all, given how many places there are to visit.
One afternoon I popped up to the postcard-pretty Ajman, and watched the gorgeous waves crashing onto the deserted white sandy beaches. ‘Idyllic’ is the only word that came to mind – and only 15 minutes from Sharjah.
Dubai offered a host of marvels – of which many indeed were shopping-related, but many others (of which I only got a brief taste), were not. Of course there were the two amazing malls – Mall of the Emirates (which is the location of Ski Dubai!) and Dubai Mall (home of the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, and also home to the remarkably delightful Fountain), both of which were epic in size. With the number of luxury and designer outlets present, I did begin to wonder why Emiratis come to London to do their shopping – everything is available right here with the benefit of a swanky setting and air-conditioning.
I must admit to my embarrassment, my favourite mall of the ones I visited was Al-Wafi, which is constructed in the style of Ancient Egypt, with huge columns and sphinxes outside, and hieroglyphics. It stands next to the Raffles Hotel which is built in the shape of a pyramid. However, downstairs it has a remarkable ’souq’ area, which is built in a surprisingly convincingtraditional souq style, and has the most amazing shops with absolutely stunning abayas. I will be saving my pennies up so that if I get a chance to return I can purchase one of these remarkable creations. That Emiratis think nothing of spending £500 upwards on an abaya for day to day wearing (and that they always look so glamorous) is no unending source of mystery for me.
Best of all in Dubai was visiting old Dubai and observing the cargo port, the workers crossing the creek around which Dubai was originally built and observing the abra stations – the places where the dhows dock at regular intervals along
the creek to form the water transport network. As a luxury I hired an abra for an hour at sunset to travel along the creek and see old Dubai in the falling light. At sunset the adhan echoed in stereo – literally – as it was called from mosques on both sides. The old area of Bastakiyya lit up with its golden lights, and men sat beneath the bridges to fish during the perfect early evening air. This was the magic of Dubai.
By contrast were the two most epic sights of Abu Dhabi – the Emirates palace hotel which is absolutely enormous. And has this legendary gold vending machine. Not sure what to get friends and family? Running out of time to go shopping? Insert $500 and give them their own gold coin or bar.
And on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi is the new Shaikh Zayed mosque. I wasn’t expecting to like it when I arrived, not being very partial to large mosques that are built too far away for daily usage, but the architecture and the decoration is exquisite, and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen – fair more organic and lyrical. And the mosque is staffed in a very friendly and gentle manner – unlike my usual experiences of being shouted at for being a woman trying to enter a mosque.
My final day was another complete change – this time driving through the glorious deep grey Hajar mountains that form the spine of the eastern flank of the UAE. On the other side is a separate part of Sharjah, and also an enclave of Oman. The eastern coast is much quieter and less developed than the rest of the UAE, and so is more relaxing and has the rugged natural beauty that
contrast with the frenetic metropolis of Dubai. The drive along the coast encompassed Dibba, Khor Fakkan and Kalba, all seemingly untouched in their coastal beauty.
So many things were left unseen. Yas Island (with the F1 track, and Ferrari World), several art galleries, the burgeoning arts scene in Dubai, Jumeira Beach (observed only from afar), several older mosques, a dhow cruise along the coast, a foray into Oman, a visit to the Liwa Oasis… the list goes on.
Despite staying for several days, I felt that I had only just caught a peek of UAE life. If anyone tells you that all there is to the UAE is shopping – don’t believe them. There’s plenty more beneath the surface.