TRAVEL PURSUITS—Bridging the Gulf Between Us

Dubai 916البعد جفاء
“Distance equals disaffection.”
― Arabic proverb

“Life is meant to be shared. We need each other.”
― Lailah Gifty Akita, a Ghanaian writer

Lamentably, cultural divisiveness is stubborn. Travel is often touted as one of the best ways to build bridges and break down barriers. But it is possible to travel the world in a protective bubble without connecting to a people and a place, and come home with prejudices intact. Because Classical Pursuits celebrates conversation and open minds, our Travel Pursuits are designed to place travellers in contact with ideas and individuals that challenge received assumptions. We travel deeper and aim to come home with a stronger sense of being a citizen of the world.

One of the very best places I have found to do this was in Dubai, at the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, where I was invited in 2014 as a literary journalist (thanks very much to Francis McGovern of Literary Traveler).

I confess to travelling to Dubai with my mind half made up that I would find a veneer of glitz and buttoned-up glamour but not much in the way of serious writers or readers. Instead, my assumptions (prejudices) were upended. I want to share that experience with you in March 2016. Before you read on, I encourage you to view the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature Official Video 2014 from the year I attended.

I think the video captures well the happy surprises I encountered:

The Festival itself

  • I was dazzled first by the informal and warm hospitality. It was simply fun to be there.  Everywhere you turned, someone was offering you traditional Emirati tea or asking you about yourself. There was a lot of laughter.
  • The setting of festival was both spectacular and functional – on multiple levels of a gracious new hotel in an area called Festival City. The spaces lent themselves to quiet conversation and reading. The festival spilled outside to a balloon-festooned waterfront.
  • The writers were world-class and came from the UAE, the broader Middle East, the UK, North America, and beyond. There were poets, novelists, playwrights, journalists, and historians.
  • The programming was rich and varied, with most sessions based on conversation between two or more people. There was always time for Q&A. The formal sessions all had simultaneous translation between English and Arabic, and there was lively but respectful dialogue with the audience. The evening of poetry under the dark desert sky was an unforgettable experience.
  • The participants were even more diverse, spanning many cultures and all ages. It was especially gratifying to see so many children of all ages were, busy reading books, telling stories, making music, and acting out plays.
  • Readers and writers mingled easily, using the many indoor and outdoor seating areas to have a quiet conversation.

dubai towersDubai itself

  • Yes, there are dizzyingly tall towers and ridiculous feats of moneyed hubris – like a ski slope inside a desert shopping mall.
  • But there is also a much older part of Dubai, which is fascinating to walk around.
  • The city is also incredibly culturally ambitious beyond books. There are neighbourhoods devoted to art galleries, showing both cutting-edge local art and international exhibits. A grand opera house is under construction. There is an annual international jazz festival. Culinary arts are celebrated at a very high level.
  • The population of Dubai is far more diverse than even Toronto. Only 10 percent of the residents are Emirati citizens, the rest being made up of expats, some of whose families have lived there for generations, and others who are there for shorter stints. All groups contribute to the flavour of the place.
  • I was surprised by the large number of young people from the countries that made up the former USSR. It was fascinating to talk to them about life back home both before and after the end of the Communist era and how it compares to the lives they are leading in Dubai.
  • The people of Dubai may not be as culturally integrated as they are in Toronto, but there does seem to be a commitment to mutual respect. The consumption of alcohol is one example. Muslims generally do not drink, but alcohol is available in hotels and in the many rooftop bars, leaving the streetscape restaurants alcohol-free and family-friendly.

 

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The Festival in 2016

Here are a few of the authors I recognize and am eager to hear this coming March, alas, all from familiar cultures:

A.C. Grayling  
Anthony Horowitz 
Anchee Min 
Ben Crystal and David Crystal
Chris Hadfield 
Ian Rankin
Jane Hawking and Lucy Hawking
Tim Spector

I am just as eager to hear from authors so far unknown to me.  Here are a few.

Afshin Molavi 
Hammour Zaida 
Hatoon al-Fasi 
Hoda Bakarat 
Maha Gargash
Nujoom Alghanen
Shukri Al Mabkhout 
Sultan Faisal Al Rumaithi 

You can view all 140 authors and their bios.

 

dubai festivalIf you are looking for a thoughtful vacation that will give you plenty of reasons to walk with a new, optimistic spring in your step, please join me in March to help Bridge the Gulf Between Us.

 

 

 

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