DUBAI: In a region with a rich history of storytelling, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is known for its intellectual exploration. For the past 15 years, this cultural extravaganza has been celebrated annually as a movement dedicated to kindling a love for literature, embracing diverse voices, and igniting cross-cultural exchanges. At the helm of this transformative journey is Ahlam Bolooki, the festival director and CEO of the Emirates Literature Foundation who was appointed in 2023. 

Arab News caught up with Bolooki to discuss her initiatives and her commitment to amplifying the voices of Arab authors. 

Bolooki touched on how Emirati audiences now rank among the top nationalities purchasing tickets for the event, according to organizers. “It’s amazing to see the shift in encouraging our community to engage with writers and speakers from around the world,” she shared.  

This transformation has also seeped into education. Bolooki added: “We have seen many students whose lives have been changed by the ELF and have gone on to pursue careers related to literature, such as journalism or the arts. Some of these students have even published their own books, inspiring the next generation of writers and readers.” 

Similarly, promoting Arab authors within the Middle East’s literary landscape stands as a core tenet for Bolooki and the Emirates Literature Foundation. Ahlam emphasised the rich heritage of storytelling in the Arab world and pointed out that while Arabic classics like “1001 Nights” have captivated readers worldwide for centuries, contemporary Arabic literature remains underrepresented.  

The Kateb Maktub initiative, started in 2020, aims to help Arab authors. Bolooki explained: “One of the biggest challenges the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature faced for its first 15 years was the lack of information available on Arab authors.” She noted that this scarcity of resources hindered not only the festival’s pursuits but also the global understanding of Arab literature. This realisation gave birth to Kateb Maktub with a mission to substantially increase the presence of Arab author pages on Wikipedia, both in Arabic and English. The ultimate aim? To offer Arabic literature the attention and recognition it richly deserves.  

Since its inception, Kateb Maktub has augmented the number of Wikipedia pages dedicated to Arab authors by over 500 percent, according to Bolooki.  

Bolooki’s commitment to the cause is further evident through initiatives like the ELF Seddiqi Writer’s Fellowship, an extensive program designed to nurture Arab writers in both Arabic and English. She commented: “The fellowship offers aspiring fiction writers the opportunity to elevate the level of their craft, understand what global audiences are looking for, and work with renowned names in the publishing world.”  

Addressing the challenges that Arab and regional authors face in achieving global recognition, she highlighted the need for improved distribution and translation efforts. “The lack of distribution is a significant issue within the publishing industry,” she noted. “Piracy is another problem in the Arab world. Due to the absence of clear laws around it, books are illegally provided online or in less privileged areas where access to books is limited.” Yet, she stood as a beacon of inspiration, urging aspiring writers to persevere, embrace opportunities, and embrace the transformative power of literature. 

Bolooki’s vision extends beyond the horizon, rooted in forging partnerships and collaborations that catalyse the transformation of the literary landscape.  

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