A Letter to the #DubaiLitfest 2017

One of the things that really made me think  at the recent Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai was hearing an Emirati speak about how hurtful it was to hear the rest of the world call his home a "soulless" place. Well, I have news for anyone who has thought this – Dubai is not a desert, it's packed with souls. The festival had a running theme of letter-writing and this is a letter to all the kind souls I met on that extraordinary week.

Dear Layal, Krishnaa, Massyl, Aarav, Jayden, Tansy, Sharon, Joanna, Shagun, Mondiel, Sheresa, Emily, Muneera, Dolyn, Jane, Chielo Jean, Mona, Ahmed, Anisha, Maryann, Sahar, Tania, Seo Young, Vaania, Xin Xin, Ben, Anya, Sarah, Bhavna, Mishti, Ada, Anna, Tess, Zalal, Robert, Jessica, Aamiraa, Jack, Syed, Natasha, Sarah, Sewar, Ruchika, Kayde, Zoya, Trisha, Brian, Freddie, Sanika, Hditi, Amanda, Rose, Iman, Joao, Maja, Andy, Joe, Isobel, Yvette, Cathy, Maryann, Joan, Gillian, Jo, Mia, Monita and Ronita ...

This is me with the children queuing to have their books signed after my first event
I remember your names
because I managed to keep a few of the post-its from the signing queue with your names scribbled on them. I wanted to remind myself of the mind-blowing diversity of people I met at this festival.

On my first night in the city, there was a reception for the festival authors on the edge of a beautiful pool outside the newly built Etihad Museum. "Etihad" is Arabic for 'Union' – the museum celebrates the coming together of seven emirates into the United Arab Emirates.

At the Etihad Museum with Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Abi Elphinstone. Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve are clearly up to no good in the background.

I found myself  listening guiltily as an Emirati speaker described his distress at hearing Dubai being called a "soulless" place by some.

 I found myself  listening guiltily as an Emirati speaker described his distress at hearing Dubai being called a "soulless" place by some.

Dear reader, I felt guilty because I had entertained that thought myself.

Was it perhaps because of the embarrassment of riches on display in this city?

Or perhaps because I had  never actually met anyone who claimed to love Dubai?

Perhaps it was because as a Filipino, I had long lived with the notion that Dubai had a big role in the hard-luck narrative of overseas workers from my native Philippines.

More than 20 years ago, as a journalist, I wrote many articles about school teachers and other professionals leaving my country in droves to work as cleaners, nannies and other domestic jobs in oil-rich countries like Dubai. My own Dad, who was an architect, left home in the seventies and eighties to work in Libya and Guinea, a devastating experience for those of us left behind which I explore again and again in my stories.

At the festival, I had many unexpected and fascinating encounters with folks I would never otherwise have met. Such as appearing in the most diverse Women's Day panel ever (featuring Jamaican author Kei Miller, British entrepreneur Jo Malone, Filipino me and Emirati writer Noura al Noman); discussing his native Egypt and my native Philippines with fantasy author and journalist Ibrahim Farghali, talking hijabs and science fiction with feisty Noura al Noman, and watching this astounding performance by Emirati spoken word poet Afra Atiq.

Filipinos of Dubai

Just a few of the Filipinos I met in Dubai

I knew I had made the right decision to come when on emerging from Arrivals at Dubai Airport, we saw two Filipinas hopping up and down at the barrier waving the festival's lime green flag. Mia Santiago and Mary Ann Miranda were there to greet festival arrivals and were especially excited to meet a fellow Pinoy! Later, I learned that Mia worked on the educational programme and Mary Ann was the festival administrator.

Upon arriving at the Crowne Plaza Hotel (with its extraordinary fountain display, above), I was embraced effusively by Cathy Penaflor, executive assistant to the festival director, then the Filipino front desk staff greeted me with what I can only describe as extreme Filipino hospitality. 'When I heard you were coming, I asked my colleagues to call me to the front desk as soon as you checked in,' one of them told me.

Kabayan, kabayan, I heard the word whispered wherever in Dubai I ran into Filipinos – which was EVERYWHERE.

Kabayan is the Filipino word for 'my countryman'. There are 700,000 Filipinos working in Dubai. And my kabayan were selling books at the bookshop, they were running the concierge, they were the maitre d's at restaurants, they were making pasta at the Italian counter, running school libraries, herding school children around the festival, serving tables, driving limos, cleaning floors, serving coffee, moving chairs etc etc etc  ... some had worked in the country for weeks and months, others had been there for decades.

The Philippine Consulate in Dubai, in coordination with Cathy PeƱaflor, pulled out all the stops so that I could meet as many Filipinos as possible, kidnapping me from the hotel for impromptu meetings!

Impromptu visit to the Philippine School in Dubai, one of four Filipino schools in the emirate.
The Philippine School of Dubai ... wow, look at that desert!

One night the Philippine consulate kidnapped me and took me to meet a huge group of Filipinos at the Fiesta Pinoy Restaurant. 

  • Dubai's boyish Philippine Consul General Paul Raymond Cortes kindly came to an author reception to meet me. He told me that though there were still many Filipino hard luck stories in this emirate, over the years a flourishing community of Filipino professionals and businessmen had grown
  • Vice Consul Marianne Bringas collected me from the hotel and took me to Fiesta Pinoy where there was a massive meeting of Filipinos preparing for Independence Day celebrations. Fiesta Pinoy, btw, is owned by Lebanese Houssam Malak, who spotted a gap in the market. So many Filipinos, so little Filipino food!
  • There, I was interviewed by young Jekah Carillo, who left the Philippines at age six to join her parents abroad, living in Singapore, India and finally in Dubai, where she now writes for Kabayan Weekly.
  • I only had one free morning left, and just as I was sitting down to breakfast, I got a call that Cultural Officer Eleanor Balanquit was coming to get me to take me to The Philippine School. 
  • I spoke to a classroom full of aspiring authors, chatted to their teacher Marshall who edits the school paper, and had my photo taken with principal Jocelyn Sollano, managing director Leticia Maniaul, and vice principal Richard Zulueta.
  • I was so pleased to see Vice Consul Weng Pangilinan-Daquipil and other Filipino kabayans in the audience during my panel on International Womens Day
  • On the final day of the festival, I had a packed schedule of meetings with Pinoy journalists: Mariecar Jara-Puyod of The Gulf Today, Enelra Pingol Mariposque of GMA News, Gemma Casas of The Inquirer, and a Facebook Live interview with cameraman Ervin Quario and host Josie Romulo of Tatak Pinoy

Shy not Shy

Here's a video of highlights from Day 8 – I have a brief appearance at 0:26!

Now I am a bizarre combination of friendly and shy and attending these festivals, the prospect of having to talk to new people terrifies me.

Luckily, the festival boasted the friendliest Green Room ever known to literary festivals, led by event manager Jo James. Conversations with strangers were painlessly struck. On that first scary night when my pal and social crutch Sarah McIntyre had yet to arrive, I had to actually meet people in the Green Room on my own ... and I was fine.

Joan Scott-Minter volunteers at the LitFest even though she no longer lives in Dubai. Joan was my host on one day, making sure I got to my event and doing the introductions.

Children's authors from the UK clowning around in the Green Room

These cute guys (the outfit came complete with swords) were attending Piers Torday's event
Just a few of the volunteers who tirelessly kept the festival ticking
Posing with some of the kids who attended my Myth-Making Workshop
I didn't get to meet illustrator Kerby Rosanes, the other Filipino featured by the Festival, but here is the result of his five hour live drawing session! Kerby's art was discovered by publishers on social media and his colouring books are a big hit

Posing with Sarah is the very cool Piyush Jha, Indy film director and crime writer

There were a lot of things going on at the festival, including this art competition – so sweet to see my name amongst the entries!
A boy named Viraaj made this poetic bookmark as a farewell present to give his favourite Litfest authors. Thank you, Viraaj. You are why we write!

Young Ahmad told me he loves reading, writing, acting ... I'm looking forward to meeting him again as one of the festival stars someday and reminiscing how I met him when he was a boy with a dream.

I am being interviewed by Dubai Eye 103.8 – lucky Sarah McIntyre was around to take a picture!
And here is Costa-winning author Frances Hardinge (The Lie Tree) being interviewed by Dubai Eye in her trademark hat.

My favourite photo from the Festival – with Kei Miller (Augustown) and Tanya Landman (Buffalo Soldiers). Photo by Sarah McIntyre
I loved hanging out with these guys: Indian author Kanishk Tharoor (Swimmer Among the Stars) and his wife, the poet Amanda Calderon (who helpfully told me, "It's Kanishk, like PUNISH, but with a K"); festival moderator Joan Scott-Minter; Indian director and crime writer Piyush Jha (Mumbaistan) and his journalist wife Priyanka Sinha Jha and Gillian Heney, head of programming.

And here are the LitFest team taking a well deserved bow on the final night of the festival

Hang on, maybe THIS is my favourite photo of the festival, with the dynamic duo Sarah McIntyre and Philip Reeve, all dressed up for their next sell out gig!

While hanging out with other authors has been a definite highlight of the Festival, seeing Dubai through its prism, exchanging ideas  and encountering so many different cultures, has changed me in a way I had not expected.

Everywhere, I asked Filipinos how they were doing and if they liked living and working in Dubai. While I was told there are still Filipino hard luck stories, most of my respondents told me: Oh yes, we like it here. This is the land of opportunity. Some even called Dubai home.

I got a similar, affectionate response from many of the expatriates I met in this land where expats outnumber native Emiratis. 'I'm going back to Pakistan next month to get married,' my driver from the airport told me. 'I'm coming straight back but my wife should be able to follow soon and this is where we plan to live. It will be good.'

There was a warm camaraderie between the Filipinos and their fellow workers from other nations.

'Kabayan!' Cathy called to an Emirati co-worker, pointing at me.
'I know, I know!' her co-worker grinned.
'You know what kabayan means?' I said.
'Of course! I work with many Filipinos!' was the reply.

Every single one of my events was attended by a rainbow of children from everywhere: the Emirates, Australia, Korea, Palestine ('My parents are from Palestine,' one child informed me, 'but we can't live there so we live here.'), England, Scotland, the Philippines, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Jordan, Japan, Kuwait ... everywhere!

It was moving how much the children loved their time with us children's authors – 'I can't wait for the year to pass so that the festival can come round again!' one teenager told me. At one point, Sarah, Philip, Piers and I ran into a boy in the lobby who'd been waiting to get us to autograph our books.  25,000 children attended the festival, some travelling many hours across the desert.

I didn't manage to do any tourism, I was too busy meeting wonderful people. The best I could manage was when I wandered out of the hotel to discover hundreds of families of all nationalities waiting along the esplanade for the evening's light and fountain show. I leave you with a moment from that evening.

Thank you for making me a part of your festival.

Till we meet again,                           


Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine. She posts book resources for readers and literacy educators, as well as children's book business and craft for authors in her new Facebook Page, do like the page if this is your thing (please choose 'Follow First' to make sure FB doesn't hide my posts from you)! You might also want to check out Sarah McIntyre's  epic post about the Litfest . And check Philip's post too, which is far more compact.

Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates