This was the first year the fair had a festival running alongside it, and the Dubai Lit Fest team came in to help out. When the festival invited me to Abu Dhabi as a speaker, I had no idea of what to expect, or even to pack; I thought it might be very similar to my Dubai experience (which I wrote about in 2017 and 2014). But Abu Dhabi was very different to Dubai, with its own unique flavour and enjoyable in different ways, so I thought I'd write up tips for people who might be going as authors, artists, translators, potential authors, or even as visitors and book buyers.
Thanks to Ras Al Khaimah-based children's book author Maitha al Khayat for the lovely cloak!
1. Pack business cards!
You never know who you are going to meet. In England, I've pretty much stopped using business cards and when I meet someone I want to stay in touch with, I tend to follow them on Twitter and take a screenshot of their profile. But people in Abu Dhabi LOVE business cards, and it feels rude not to have something to give in return. Fortunately I'd packed some publisher post cards with one of my book covers on it, which seemed to work just fine. You only need to put as much contact information on it as you want to give away: at a minimum, your name and website. I met very few people there who were on Twitter, but a lot of Instagram users. Another tip: take a photo of the business card with the person standing behind it (if they don't mind), and when you get home with a stack of mystery cards, you'll be able to attach a face to a name. Or if you lose the cards, you'll still have photos of them on your phone.
2. Visit the Grand Mosque
As a festival guest, I had some time to do a bit of sightseeing, and the festival booked guides and buses for us on a couple of the days. The architecture of the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, designed by Syrian architect Yousef Abdelky, is amazing and a real pride of the city. But if you're a woman, be sure to bring appropriate clothing. I thought my red kaftan in the top photo would be covering enough - it goes all the way to the floor - but when I moved my arms, it left the lower half of them bare, which was a no-no. So I ended up walking with my arms tucked under the black cloak, and our Dutch guide fretting in case my wrists popped out. Just bring long sleeves, a long skirt or dress and a head covering, and save yourself the worry. (And try not to roll your eyes too much as you see men going by in shorts and short-sleeves shirts.) It is worth the visit, have a look at these views:
3. Visit the Louvre Abu Dhabi
The Louvre Abu Dhabi completely blew me away, both for its unusual architecture and its rich and varied collection.
Designed by French architect Jean Nouvel, the rectangular blocks of the museum are broken up by waterways that give a calm, refreshing feel to the bright light bouncing off the building's hard surfaces.
A heavy but intricate metal dome covers the central area of the museum, with beautiful and changing mosaics of light refracting through it. You don't reach the central domed area for most of your walk through the museum, but you keep catching glimpses of it through windows to various courtyards, which builds your anticipation, until at last you step into its cool, light-dappled shade.
The rooms inside the museum are blockish and utilitarian, but set up like theatres with complicated tracks on the ceiling so each exhibition can get the light that's just right for it. They're easy to adapt for the ever-changing displays, borrowed from museums all over France including the Louvre in Paris, the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Musée d'Orsay and Palace of Versailles. They'll be borrowing French pieces while the museum works on building up its own collection, and since 2012, they've already collected an impressive collection of old photography. Most of these other French museums own more than they can display at once, so many of the remarkable pieces may be brand-new to you.
Left: Woman dressed in a woolen garment, Oxus civilisation, Central Asia, Bactria, 2300-1700 BCE. Right: Salt cellar with Portuguese soldiers and a caravel, by an unknown Edo artist from Benin, carved around 1600.
Just like the Grand Mosque, the Louvre Abu Dhabi staff seem fine with photography, and I've already used photos of two pieces for our Thursday @StudioTeaBreak #PortraitChallenge inspirations:
Reinterpretations of the salt cellar (above) by @vb_bandera, @Rumpelrina, @dfmorrill and @JoBradleypaint
Original 1755 wood block print by Isoda Koryusai and studies by @EmBlueJay, @neschof and @SandRussellArt
A few more photos of that beautiful light.
4. Do some background reading
While I was at the festival, I got to meet Roudha al Marri, who'd written this UAE 101 handbook to Emirati culture, inspired by conversations with her Italian neighbour, Illaria Caielli, who became her co-author. It's a useful read, and not too long, if you need a quick introduction.
5. Learn a few phrases in Arabic
Of course, it would be ideal to speak and read Arabic fluently, but a few little phrases will help you come across as more courteous. Most people I met spoke fluent English, and language was never a problem, but I wish I'd known more Arabic and, if I lived there, I would definitely take a language course. Good manners are very important in the Middle East, and probably the two more useful phrases are:
thank you: shuk-ran
hello: ('peace be upon you'):
Reply with 'peace be upon you, too':
wa a-lay-kum ah-sah-lam
If you hold your right hand over your heart, that can indicate sincerity, too, and may work better than holding out your hand to shake, if you don't know what to do. (Traditionally Emirati men don't generally hold out their hands for women to shake.) I mostly shook hands with people although there was an occasional awkward moment and I started resorting to the hand-over-the-heart with a slight bow of the head when the other person wasn't obviously Western. At one point, I got into British Green-Room mode and gave Malala's Pakistani dad an air kiss which then felt very inappropriate although he was very nice about it.
6. Be flexible with events
The Dubai Lit Fest ran like clockwork but the Abu Dhabi Bookfest was much more laid-back about timings, and while most of the events ran roughly to time, we had to be prepared for anything, such as an unexpected appearance of a local school dance troupe performing in the first 20 minutes of the event, or a member of the royal family appearing and whatever event was happening on stage, swiftly finishing to make way. Once we got used to this, these things could be very enjoyable, or interesting, but I'd recommend anyone doing an event, to break it up into sections where you could finish after each ot them, instead of spending the whole event building up to one big dramatic finish (just in case). Also, don't worry if you're event isn't packed out right from the start; just get going and your audience may be very large by the end.
Also, the flexibility led for some fun collaborations, like this event I did with Curtis Jobling. We created characters with audience input, and then created a comic story on the flipcharts, which people seemed to enjoy very much.
Photo by staff photographers of the ADIBF daily newsletter
7. Good moderators are essential
I was incredibly grateful for moderator Paul Blezard: he knew how to rally everyone for the beginning of event, and skillfully knew how to work an audience of any age. He worked very hard, even looking after me when I had an event and the tour bus wasn't due to get me back in time. If you're a speaker, stick close to your event moderator, they're a real anchor when things get confusing, and Paul made my trip way more fun and social than it might have been otherwise, by getting people together and being generally a lot of fun.
8. Treat tech teams well
This should go without saying, but be sure to be as polite and understanding as possible to the event technicians, who are working hard to make everything run smoothly, and who did a great job while I was there. People are watching you, and if you aren’t respectful, they will feel offended on behalf of other people, not only themselves. (It wasn't necessary, but I wish I'd even brought some small gift to give my tech teams - about three people per event - and for my booksellers, as a token of thanks.)
9. Have an extra event for adults up your sleeve
One interesting thing about the book fair were the Literary Salons. These were partitioned-off areas decorated as beautiful assembly rooms and hospitality areas. I was asked in advance if I'd give a short presentation to the Al Multaqa Literary Salon, and Seema Al Langawi interviewed me about my work. (That's a PowerPoint presentation behind me, of images from my new Grumpycorn picture book.)
The Al Multaqa Literary Salon started out as a women's book club, meets regularly, and hosts these high-power book fair events, covering all sorts of areas of cultural interest, including literary criticism, architecture, city planning, poetry and diplomatic relations. So even if you make books for children, keep in mind that you might want something you could present to a grownup audience. Things that particularly moved the audiences were discussions of how to get children reading, and encouraging fathers to read to their children. They particularly liked it when Curtis Jobling talked about how fathers can inspire their children to read by modelling it themselves - being seen to read in front of their children.
The audience had a core group of women, but many men also came to the talks, including a group of members from the royal family at one point (and everything then was much more formal, and photography was discouraged). Many of the speakers had their heads covered, but most of the women hosts wore much more Western-style clothing and hairstyles. Here's Paul Blezard giving a talk, as a writer and poet. For these talks, there was always a translator booth in the corner and visitors would be supplied with headsets on request, for live translation.
I had a little look around with Dubai-based author Rachel Hamilton, and here we are at the Sea of Culture Foundation Literary Salon. I was also invited last-minute to give a talk there, but unfortunately it didn't work with my travel times.
10. Try new foods
The food in Abu Dhabi was absolutely amazing, some of the best I've ever had. I stayed at the Andaz Capital Gate hotel, next to the convention centre, and the restaurant on the 18th floor did the most fabulous babaganoush (and I am dying to get a good very-smoky babaganoush recipe now, if anyone knows of one). And I loved the cardamom-flavoured Arabic coffee that was offered, together with dates, just about everywhere.
The Al Multaqa Literary Salon also had constant tea refreshment, and jaw-droppingly good canapés, many things I'd never tried before, and which were all delicious.
11. Visit the illustrator's Corner
It was wonderful to see illustration getting such a high profile in the book fair, with a presence right near the front entrance, where everyone would pass it.
The setup had little studios for various locally-living artists to work in and sell art and merchandise. Here's Vern Brown expertly teaching children how to paint sunsets, and Ruth Burrows displaying her designs.
The Illustrator's Corner also had a small stage with chairs, and a long table could be pulled up if we wanted to do more hands-on workshop creativity. I gave one talk to grownup audiences about the Pictures Mean Business campaign, explaining how everyone wins when illustrators are credited properly for their work. And another day, I gave a family picture book talk and helped kids and grownups start designing their own book covers. (Here are some of my books and their free book-related activities, if you want to use any of them.)
Photo by staff photographers of the ADIBF daily newsletter
12. Go hear other people's talks
One of the great things about the festival is that we're given enough time to be able to attend other people's events. So often when I go to book festivals, I'm rushed in for my event, and then I need to rush off to catch my train. Or the festival is packed so tightly that I'm performing at the same time as someone else I'd really like to see. But in Abu Dhabi, the festival was spread over enough days, and I was there long enough that I had the time.
Rehan Khan signing books after his event on the Main Stage
This is so valuable, not only because I love books and love to hear other people talk about them, but because it helps us improve our own events, seeing that there are different ways to present what we do. We can learn new ways to engage people's attention, and find out how to make them feel more like we're listening to them, too, as well as asking them to listen to us.
Curtis Jobling talking about animation work at the Illustrator's Corner stage
Ziauddin Yousafzai and Toor Pekai Yousafzai (Malala's parents) in the festival Green Room
Emma Craig Jobling and Brandy Scott in the Green Room
13. Check out different imaginative ways people display books
I loved exploring the main body of the fair to discover different ways people made their stalls stand out.
China had a particularly remarkable stand, right down to tiny details, and the interior was as lavishly decal-painted as the outside.
India was the book fair's Guest of Honour, and had a very regal entrance:
I was very pleased to see the India stand showcasing Indian illustrators:
14. Visit Magrudy's bookshop and Kalimat's stand - and leave extra room for books in your suitcase!
Magrudy's bookshop (based in Dubai) stocked the books for the festival's author events, so I saw their friendly and helpful team a lot, and bought quite a lot of English-language books from them. (Thank you for stocking mine, including a rush-delivery on Grumpycorn, which technically wasn't even out yet!)
And when I did a general browse of the fair, the Kalimat stand (Sharjah-based) stood out by a mile for beautiful illustration and production value. I was particularly looking for top-notch Emirati book illustrators at the fair, and didn't find so many; I think it's an area that has a lot of room for growth, although they have a tremendously rich tradition of Arabic calligraphy. Many of Kalimat's books were written by local Arabic-language writers, paired with Italian illustrators they'd discovered at Bologna Children's Book Fair. I ended up buying several beautiful original books from them, even though I couldn't read the Arabic writing.
15. Be prepared for the occasional odd encounter
There were a few awkward moments, but people were pretty laid-back, and they were usually funny rather than truly embarrassing. In this photo you can see a woman who ran up to me with her friend, insisting she take a photo of both of us. (I got a lot of attention for being incredibly tall, and also wearing big hats and frocks.) I asked her friend if she could also take a photo on my phone, and when her friend tried to snap the photo, the woman kept craning her neck around to the side, so her eyes wouldn't show in the photo. Then she insisted on carefully inspecting the photos im my phone before letting me go. She got a full photo of me, so I'm not quite sure what that was all about! Oh, well.
16. Be prepared to do quite a bit of walking; some of the exhibition halls are vast
There's a lot of flat marble flooring between the hotels and the conference room, be sure to bring more than one pair of shoes in case you get blisters from that brand-new pair of sandals you brought for the trip. If you're invited there and unable to walk much, be sure to talk with the organisers about it.
17. Bring a jumper (or cloak)
You'd think Abu Dhabi would be hot, but you'll spend most of your time in air-conditioned rooms, which can get quite icy! So bring layers, and if you eat outdoors at night, you'll need something warm to wrap around yourself.
18. Finish with a big thank you to the organisers!
The festival was absolutely brilliant, and I'd recommend for anyone to go. Huge thanks to Alex Broun, who was my contact organiser person for the festival, and who did a marvelous job liasing between many, many different groups who had their own plans for the festival and didn't always talk with each other or to him. Here he is with Daisy Line, who made the Green Room and events run so smoothly, and conjured flip charts, pencils, paper, whatever we needed out of the air. The team were wonderfully gracious and flexible, and understood how to work with a huge range of international authors, poets, artists and performers.
I was very sad to leave! It was great to catch up with people I hardly ever get to see back in England, such as author Ali Sparkes, and local people such as Dubai-based performance poet Afra Atiq.
And another big cheer for Isobel Abulhoul, who started up the Dubai Lit Fest, Magrudy's bookshop, and was another one of my main contacts for this festival. She's an inspiration and it was great to be able to hang out with her. And a big thank you to all the children and families who came along to my events! I loved drawing with you, and I hope you went away inspired, too!
You can follow Abu Dhabi Internation Book Festival on Instagram @abudhabibookfair, and Twitter, @ADIBF.