The outsider who became an insider: Isobel Abulhoul’s journey from being a reader to a litpreneur

As the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature celebrates its 15th edition next year — the grandest ever in its history — we map out its founder's path, from when she decided to make UAE home in 1968


Anamika Chatterjee

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Published: Thu 22 Dec 2022, 10:02 PM

When she was a young girl, there were two books that had captured Isobel Abulhoul’s imagination like nothing else — Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and Johanna Spyri’s Heidi. In The Secret Garden, a little girl, whose parents’ deaths mean she’s brought up by an ayah in India, is sent to the UK to live with an uncle she has never met. Heidi, on the other hand, revolves around five-year-old titular character who, after her parents’ deaths, goes to live with her grandfather in the Alps. In both stories, the physical shift to another geography paves the way for a change in the protagonists’ lives. While reading these books as a child, little would have Isobel known that her own life would take a similar turn after she decided to make the UAE her home in 1968.

Prior to this, however, Isobel lived in a world that she says was “very different”. “Those were the post-war (World War II) years and things like sugar rationing were still in place because the war had been an incredibly hard time for millions of people. Many lost their families. For those who survived, children were treasured,” recalls Isobel who was raised in Cambridge. The psychological scar of the war was that the family unit became central to people’s lives. In Isobel’s case, this meant that her parents had no expectations from their children; they were primarily invested in raising well-read and educated individuals. Every room in their house had books and reading bedtime stories was very much a part of the routine. “The memory I cherish most is my father returning home from work every day at quarter to six, washing his hands and reading me a bedtime story. During those days, we would all go to bed at 6 pm,” she recalls.

Beach outside the house
Beach outside the house

Happy in her own world, Isobel remained curious about the one that existed outside. She had known little about the Middle East except for a friend of her mother’s who had been to India for a world conference in 1936 and had flown to Dubai on a seaplane. “He was the only person I knew who had been to Dubai. Nowadays everyone knows someone who’s been here,” she recalls. Interestingly, it’s the same person who gave young Isobel a book called Arabian Sands by Wilfred Thesiger, following which she had a greater understanding of the culture, customs and the way of life in this part of the world. That is until she landed here herself one December night.

Isobel vividly remembers that day and the contrasts she was exposed to. “I got on a plane from Heathrow, where it was wet and grey and then landed here at midnight. It was quite dark then and the airport was a little shack. You literally stepped down to the sand. It smelt different; it smelt warm,” she remembers. The next morning, Isobel, who was staying at her future brother-in-law’s home in Deira, would open the window curtains of the room she was staying in to find a donkey trotting past. “Over the time I was here, we went to the Gold Souk, visited the desert and sea, which was all so different. I felt I had come home.”

It was a time when Dubai saw the pearling season in summer. Families would camp often, and men would go fishing. “The bedouins would always be on the move as seasons changed. People did not really have possessions. Often, there would be a trunk that contained valuable items, like the Holy Qoran, gold and special perfumes. There weren’t many artworks or books. It was largely a culture of spoken poetry,” she reminisces.

By seventies, the region had begun attracting expats en masse. Sectors like education were being developed further. This meant that there was also a growing need to supply books and related items of need. “Having come from Cambridge, I was spoilt for choice when it came to books. We co-founded the Ittihad School with the late Sheikh Rashid and then it was about where the children would get educational tools and toys, and that’s what led us to start Magrudy’s. It was a place for families. Our motto was: from our family to yours.”

First house surrounded by the sea  after a storm
First house surrounded by the sea after a storm

Investing herself in aiding development of arts and culture here, one wonders if Isobel ever felt she wouldn’t quite fit in. On the contrary, she felt more at home here than in the UK. “They saw me as a human being, not a foreigner. I got on extremely well with my late father-in-law; he and I were kindred spirits. Also, my uncle-in-law became such a good friend over the years. That is the openness people from this part of the world have. I am always going to look the way I look. But they were more concerned about what I am like inside.”

With Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Isobel started what would give the region a distinct identity as a place that could also be a melting pot of literary talents from across the world. And while she has brought some top authors and poets from all over the world, she has, time and again, emphasised on the importance of Arabic literature and why it’s imperative to have more translations so that one can capture the true essence of the region. “My purpose in promoting Arabic literature is that it is really important for a child to have a mothertongue. Emirati children must love to read, they also need to love their beautiful language. And we need to make sure that they have the right books in their hands, which they can access at home as well as school,” she says, adding that the practice of parents reading out to children is important in developing this love for books. “With a good translator, you get the flavour of the place. If the translator is skilled in language and writing, you have a beautiful journey through the book.”

The first Magrudy’s bookshop with first ever rocking horse in Dubai
The first Magrudy’s bookshop with first ever rocking horse in Dubai

But at a time when children have easy access to gadgets, is it still possible for them to remain interested in books that demand attention? Isobel says the issue with attention is not a child’s problem but an issue parents need to tackle. “A children’s book will have black letters in it and illustrations. It paints a picture and creates characters in your mind through clever use of language. We are able to see something vividly when we read. So unless parents take the responsibility of reading books to their children and put away electronic devices, it won’t happen. Remember, it is not the child who is making that choice but the parent.”

Reading and understanding the beauty of one’s own mothertongue also becomes important when you are an adult striving to find his or her place in the world. A world where the West often, if not always, creates its own perception of the Middle East and believes it to be the truth. “They do not sometimes understand how other places are, so they put their own measures on things. Each place has its own customs and languages. There is always a challenge to explain why Dubai has its own literary festival.”

Over the years, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature has had many milestones, but the one Isobel looks back to most fondly are the lighthearted ones that have made her association with the festival even more memorable. For example, the time when the festival hosted one of its customary events in the desert and poet Lemn Sissay was reciting his poem Invisible Kisses. “Behind him, there was a very simple stage and six camels who were kneeling. As he was reciting the poem, two camels kissed each other. My daughter was sitting next to me and I did not want to say anything. She asked, ‘Am I dreaming?’ I said no. That was magical.”

Isobel says she goes to Cambridge every year and loves it because it is unchanging. “It’s quite a good contrast to live in a place that is constantly changing and then to visit a place that is not changing at all. I do not fit in there, though. This is home for me.” Ask her if she ever misses the rustic charm Dubai once had, and she says, “I live in today. The past is what colours us. I feel Dubai, and the United Arab Emirates, has done so much to take a young country to global standards. They are very, very fast to change, to put things in order.”

With the reputation of being a fast-changing country has come the stereotype of Dubai being the city of bling. Netflix’s last two shows based on the city also spotlighted that, which makes one wonder why the literary and artistic spaces do not make it to the mainstream conversations about the emirate. Isobel makes an interesting point when she says that this is against the culture of Arabia. “This is antithesis to the culture because it focuses so much on materialistic things. People here once were always on the move, they would only take their belongings with them on camels. So, what does it tell you about their idea of happiness? That it does not depend on material things,” she says. “Most people here are leading normal lives, working, looking after their families, meeting friends, going to the sea — doing things we all should be doing.”

2023 marks the 15th anniversary of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, stage is already set for more than 200 writers from all over the world to come and share their insights. Isobel’s love and commitment for the written word is laudable, but at a time when people are already writing its obituary, what exactly lies ahead for it? “Humanity is distinguished by the ability to formulate thoughts into speech and words. We have language. We are able to share ideas. And we are able to record it in writing. Had we not been able to record our words in writing, all original stories would not have lasted. We cannot manage without the written word,” she signs off.

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