Day in the Life: Emirates Litfest boss on bringing bestselling authors to the UAE

Ahlam Bolooki is CEO of Emirates Literature Foundation and director of Emirates Airline Festival of Literature

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A Day in the Life” allows you to step into the shoes of a UAE resident to experience a typical 24 hours in their work and home life

Avid reader Ahlam Bolooki regularly attended Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – the Middle East's largest celebration of the written and spoken word – before becoming its director five years ago.

The Emirati mum is also chief executive of umbrella organisation Emirates Literature Foundation, which nurtures a love of literature with a focus on the Arabic language in the UAE and wider region through cultural projects.

Ms Bolooki, 34, is also managing director of ELF Publishing, often surrounded by hundreds of signed books at its headquarters in Dubai’s Al Shindagha neighbourhood.

Here, Ms Bolooki tells The National about her typical working day ahead of the 16th festival, taking place from January 31 to February 6 at the InterContinental, Festival City.

6am: Dawn march

With her one-year-old awake, Ms Bolooki, her husband and baby Raya go strolling.

“Family time is very important,” she says. “First thing, we go for a 30-minute walk in our community in The Villa. Then we make a big thing of breakfast and put some music on.”

8.30am: Driven by words

An audiobook plays in the car heading to the office.

“I love biographies read in the voice of the author,” says Ms Bolooki.

“To listen to [Friends star] Matthew Perry’s in his own voice was a surreal experience, someone who has just passed … I’ve listened to Barack Obama tell me his story, and Michelle Obama, and listened to Prince Harry.

“All these people are in my car, in my ear as though I was on Bluetooth talking to them on the phone.”

9am: Holding court

Ms Bolooki gathers colleagues in the courtyard, sometimes with Raya “hanging like a koala on my arm and offering input”.

LitFest frequently features about 200 local and international authors but this year's event is “more focused”.

“We wanted a smaller but stronger programme,” says Ms Bolooki.

“I have a lot of discussions daily with the programming team.

“We keep adding to our master sheets whenever we discover an author, a book coming out, and request proofs from publishers. We’re always receiving books, forever reading, gathering insights and having discussions.”

Sometimes authors aren’t able to attend so are added to the following event calendar.

“Most are keen but sometimes have writing deadlines or film schedules,” says Ms Bolooki.

“It’s a really exciting process putting this puzzle together, thinking about panels, who would fit nicely with who … this dialogue with thinkers from around the world is really important, giving them a topic to discuss, and our audiences are always open-minded and engage in healthy debates.”

After LitFest, Ms Bolooki and colleagues will head to London Book Fair to meet publishers and gain insight on what’s emerging before the next LitFest.

“Dubai is a unique market because of the different nationalities based here, so we ensure there’s diversity in the geography of authors we’re bringing, as well as language.

“A lot have heard from author friends about the amazing hospitality and chance to meet other writers, the incredible audiences, great questions and unique way to experience Dubai.”

Ms Bolooki previously worked with Dubai Tourism where she promoted the city as a festival destination and joined LitFest to devise a programme to attract students from universities across the region.

“It’s one of those serendipitous things that led me here – and brought me to this dream job,” she says.

10am: Shared ideas

Each day features different meetings, with human resources, finance, and IT to operations and sponsorship.

“Programming and I will sit together to look at updates,” says Ms Bolooki. “I’m very involved in marketing, which is predominantly my background.”

She will secure publishing updates on scheduled books, timelines, maybe approve artwork and contracts.

“We have another six coming out at LitFest,” says Ms Bolooki, who founded the First Chapter: ELF Seddiqi Writers' Fellowship.

Every year, 10 aspiring fiction authors based in the UAE, writing in English or Arabic, experience "an incredible programme like a golden ticket to becoming a global author".

First cohort star Sara Hamdan’s novel What Will People Think? landed “the biggest book deal the region has seen”.

"We found this need, for building a community of locally based writers – we want a more sustainable model and the literary community to grow locally," Ms Bolooki says.

Everything ties into LitFest, including announcements, workshops, school competition awards. “It’s the start and finish of our cycle.”

11am: A new chapter

Checking progress at the nearby new foundation office, due to house the 55-strong team, Ms Bolooki says: “We have grown organically and need more space.

“This organisation used to mainly revolve around LitFest and educational visits. Now, there are many projects running that fill what was missing in the literature ecosystem.

“We want to revive the International Writers' Centre in the new location, which should be ready after the festival.”

12pm-1pm: Wiki peaks

She has lunch on the go and grabs a chance to check on the foundation’s Wikipedia project.

“We started doing research and creating pages,” explains the boss.

“Three years ago, there were only 1,500 [web pages] in Arabic about Arab authors in history, an alarmingly low number, and only 500 in English about Arab authors.

“Today we’ve surpassed 27,000 pages with the group we dedicated to this cause.

“This way we get more translations of Arabic work and authors get invited to forums around the world … we’ve done a lot of work putting literature from the region on the map.”

2pm: Name gains

The LitFest has featured literary giants such as Jo Nesbo, Margaret Atwood and Ian Rankin alongside emerging names.

Ms Bolooki will send initial invitations to authors for the next festival.

“If it’s a 'yes', I’ll connect them with the programming team to organise details of their sessions and logistics,” she says.

“Sometimes we have high-profile invitations to send for the opening ceremony, or reminders. At this point, I’ll be inviting key delegates or guests.”

Ms Bolooki says writers love the meaningful connection they experience with readers, perhaps half a world from home.

“We’ve built a reputation in the global literary community, so we get a lot of amazing names.

“We’re non-profit, we’re not paying anyone huge amounts to come here but they come because they know we have an audience of serious readers from the region.”

The festival also gets filmed for online, “so the world knows who we are and what we do”.

“We want audiences to put the festival in their calendar, no matter who’s coming, because once you go into a session you’re going to discover something, be inspired, have your thinking challenged and meet amazing people.”

3pm: Mum’s the word

Since becoming a mother, Ms Bolooki goes home earlier for “quality time” with her daughter before resuming work.

While Raya is busy in her playpen, mum might read online articles or a review to forward to her programming team or prepare to moderate a session. This festival has Ms Bolooki curating Eliza Reid, first lady of Iceland, and UK Baroness Floella Benjamin.

“I’m reading their books right now,” says the LitFest leader, who heads out for another walk before dinner and Raya’s bedtime.

“It’s a privilege to be able to read a book you connect with so much and then get a chance to interview the author for an hour.”

7pm: Evening shift

Next, she's back on the laptop following up on urgent emails, maybe concerning ELF Publishing and pending output.

“I’m focusing on English translations of Arabic literature so that we have more exposure for some of our important pieces,” says Ms Bolooki, who embraces modern media to advance the written word.

“We’re working closely with TikTok, a strategic partner for the festival.

“Gen Z create content about books, millions of videos on reviews and book talks … now agents and publishers have their eyes on TikTok to see what kids are talking about, because the moment a video goes viral that book is flying off the shelf all over the world.

“People will forever consume stories – that’s what we do with Netflix as well – we’re never going to live without stories; it’s the way we fit that into our lives that may be changing.”

9pm: Sofa sentences

Eventually the Bolookis hit the sofa with books or for TV with tea and some fruit.

“I haven’t read as much as I would like to this last year,” she adds.

“But I am the kind of person that digs deep and psychoanalyses everything. And there’s no better companion for that sort of journey than books.

“An author might spend a lifetime writing a book – you can read it in a week and you’ve gained all of what they had to say."

Updated: January 09, 2024, 8:42 AM