Arriving Dubai

Stepping back in Dubai – the city I lived in for fourteen years and had been away from for the last two years – I still have the same feeling of being at home that I had when I first visited Dubai in 2004 and decided to move there. I have this unusual instant affection toward some cities – and Dubai is one of these cities, along with Sana’a and Zanzibar.

These three cities might not look like they have something in common; but for me, they all have what I love about cities, which is ‘culture’. Stepping into the streets of Sana’a is like walking into a history book. Walking around the city’s Bab Al Yemen, surrounded by traditional buildings as old as three thousand years, with its colored windows and people in their traditional clothes, made me feel like I was there once, in the old times. And Zanzibar isn’t that different; the Stone Town is a living market of olden times, going back to the 19th century, with small hotels that reflect the influence of Omani culture, and the House of Wonder, the house of one of the Sultans and the first house with electricity in Zanzibar, hence its name.

Dubai is the city of the future that is inspired by the past. For a few years, I worked in an office in Al Fahidi Historical Area, one of the oldest areas in Dubai; some of the area’s old houses are renovated, but it has kept its cultural and traditional structure. The area is surrounded by the Meena Bazaar and the traditional food restaurants. Walking the area and taking the Abra (a traditional boat made of wood used to help people cross from one side to another) from Bur Dubai to Deira, to the old souk or gold souk or just to enjoy the afternoon in the good weather, shows you this mix of past and future, where the culture is developed and merged with the present toward the future.

On my most recent trip to Dubai, I arrived in the city at the beginning of February 2020. Winter in Dubai is the best time to enjoy the warm sun in the morning and cold breeze at night. I visited Dubai this time to see family members and to attend the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.

I rented a car at the airport and headed to my destination. Even though I knew the roads very well, after my absence of two years, another two or three new flyovers were flying over the Dubai sky and new buildings on Sheikh Zayed Road were shaping up. The Museum of the Future was still under construction but I could see the beautiful Arabic calligraphy designs covering the whole structure, reflecting the vision of Dubai. As H H Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of Dubai said, ‘The future belongs to those who can imagine it, design it, and execute it. It isn’t something you await, but rather create.’ As I continued driving, I could see from afar a new building that was designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid, and the Dubai Frame, which I had to add to my to-do list. Looking at the city through its futuristic architecture, I understood now why the festival theme this year was ‘Tomorrow’, a theme chosen to reflect the spirit of Dubai.

Emirates Festival of Literature

As with Dubai, I am also not a stranger to the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. The festival is the largest literature festival in the Arab world, launched in 2009, and it has since won prizes as the best family outing and best festival. It started with 65 authors, but this year it hosted 205 authors from 38 nationalities. What has always fascinated me about the festival is the diversity of nationalities of the authors and the audience, which also reflects the diversity of the Dubai community – this was something that I really enjoyed when I lived in Dubai, by having friends from different countries, cultures, faiths, and walks of life, and from whom I learned more than any books or travel can teach. And I also shared many different kinds of food and the history behind them. I remember when I shared the special Iraqi mix of date syrup and tahini that was unknown to all us non-Iraqis, but which, to my surprise, I found in a shop in Melbourne recently.

After many years of being involved in the festival as a volunteer or part of the team, I was attending this year as one of the audience, as a book and literature lover. Saying that, the writer and interviewer in me seized the opportunity to conduct interviews with two prominent Arab authors, Jan Dost and Tareq Imam, for the journal Arabic Literature in English ( and to moderate a session with children’s and young adult author Fatima Saharafeddine.

So when I walked into Intercontinental Hotel, the home of the festival, I could see groups of young students who gathered with their teachers to attend special student sessions. The atmosphere took me to the world of books, to a world where lovers of books, of different nationalities, languages and cultures, all gathered under one aim: to listen to authors from all around the world. I could see people in different national dresses and hear different languages as I walked amongst the crowds who were running toward the sessions or lining up for book signings. Alongside the multilingual sessions that enrich the festival, people are very friendly and they share their experiences in the festival, recommend an author or a session and talk about their new discovery of a book, author or knowledge – so it isn’t only attending the session itself that enriches the day at the festival, but it is the experience of mixing with people.

For that reason, I tend to like multilingual, multicultural sessions, where I feel I learn more and I can see the similarities and differences between people, cultures and ideas: the similarities that say we all are human and the differences that enrich our knowledge and exchange of ideas and human experiences. This is something I experienced with my friends in Dubai, even with people, like me, from Arab countries. I remember that when I first arrived in Dubai, many Arabs and Emiratis didn’t understand me when I talked in the Iraqi dialect and I couldn’t understand some of the Emirates words – because we all speak Arabic, but we speak different dialects. But in Dubai, I learned more, and I think my friends also learned my dialect. At the same time, we found that some Turkish and Indian words are used in Arabic, and we encountered myths and old stories that are so much alike, with differences just of the name of the protagonist or the area. 

We also discussed wars, old and new, and the effect of the wars on people, how people from the other part of the world used to understand it and how they changed their understanding after listening to people who lived through those wars and experienced it firsthand. Changing people’s perceptions through discussion and attending sessions is the open dialogue that most of the world needs.  

I marked four sessions when the festival program was announced: ‘Tomorrow, I Will Fly: Stories and Essays from Dubai’s Penal and Correctional Institutions’, ‘Faith in the Modern World’, ‘1001 Nights and the Power of the Story’ and ‘Footprints: A Collective Memoir’. I think these four sessions summarise life in Dubai, something I had experienced during the fourteen years I had lived here: the past that builds the future. The people are the future. 2019: the year of tolerance in UAE. Tolerance, culture and food are what bring people together.

I always look for the multicultural, multilingual sessions, where translation is provided in both Arabic and English. Even though I don’t need that, as I understand both languages, I like to watch the people who listen to the translation and see their faces glow with surprise hearing things they were previously unaware of because of the language barrier. Being a translator myself, I enjoy transferring one language to another, while keeping the essence of the subject and the language.

Faith in the Modern World

Four high-profile speakers from different backgrounds and beliefs discussed the matter of faith: Omar Ghobash, author of Letters to a Young Muslim; Gelong Thubten, a Buddhist monk who wrote A Monk’s Guide to Happiness; Lesley Hazleton, author of The First Muslim; and Mitch Albom, author of Have a Little Faith.

Each of the speakers talked about their experience, their beliefs, the circumstances that led them to write their books, and their spiritual journey to be where they are today.

Lesley Hazleton’s interest in religion led her to study Islam and Prophet Mohammed’s personality. Omar Ghobash wanted his son to understand Islam, beyond the images of Islam in the media. Gelong Thubten wrote about finding happiness as a Buddhist monk after a life-threatening illness. Mitch Albom described how his conversation with a Rabbi reawakened his sense of faith.

It was one of the sessions that was very quiet, yet it was a full room. The audience was captured by the four speakers who opened their hearts and lives in front of the audience and who respected each other’s beliefs and views that left nothing to ask about.  

Tomorrow, I Will Fly: Stories and Essays from Dubai’s Penal and Correctional Institutions

Annabel Kantaria and Clare Mackintosh spent time in Dubai Central Prison as writers-in-residence, giving workshops and coaching the inmates, both women and men, in writing stories and essays.

The project resulted in a book: Tomorrow, I Will Fly. In the session, the authors Clare Mackintosh and Annabel Kantaria along with Colonel Jamila Al Zaabi, director of Dubai Women’s Prison shared their experience of the project and talked about how the prisons are rehabilitating the inmates, to help them come back to normal life. This project sought to help inmates find themselves in writing.

The speakers gave examples of some of the work in the book and how they chose one of the poem titles to be the title of the book. The audience was then given a copy of the book Tomorrow, I will Fly. 

1001 Nights and the Power of the Story

The session was a mix of culture, language, and stories inspired by 1001 Nights and Egyptian, Emirati, American, English and Irish myths.

The panelists were Dubai Abulhoul, an Emirati who wrote her first Emirati fantasy novel inspired by Emirati myths; Alwayn Hamilton, who blended the Arabian nights with the American East to make a new story; Kevin Crossley-Holland, who blended British and Irish folklore in his book, and the Egyptian author Tareq Imam, whose book was called The New 1001 Nights.

Each of the authors talked about their books and how they were inspired by 1001 Nights, which is the base of the fantasy world and the myths they transformed into books, and by the mythology and the art of storytelling in 1001 Nights.

Footprints: A Collective Memoir

Ten women, from different parts of the world and different backgrounds – Algerian-Italian, Syrian-American, Indian-Candian, Algerian, Irish, Omani, Greek, Pakistani, Italian and French – who met at the festival book club, shared their love of books and of food cooked by their mothers and grandmothers while discussing their book, Footprints. Noaeul Chaoui, who led the group to the idea of creating a cookbook, explained that the book is not only about recipes but also a memoir of their homelands and cultures, memories they hold close to their hearts while living the life of expats in UAE.

Finally, the festival wound down to a close after these few magical days. It left me with many books to read, till the next festival. It was the 12th edition of the festival this year, and it was my 10th year attending the festival. Looking back to all these years, thinking how much these few days every year has always added to my knowledge and learning, how many authors and speakers I had met and listened to have impacted me. Authors like the great Egyptian writer Nawal El Saadawi, the brave girl, Najeen Mustafa, the kurdish Syrain refugee and activist with cerebral palsy, Saroo Brierley, whose story inspired the film Lion and many others who left us with new perspectives in life. This year’s edition, for me, was a perfect time to rediscover Dubai.

Hend Saeed is an Iraqi-New Zealander writer, translator, curator, reviewer, literary consultant, and contributing editor at She was the literary manager for Emirarteslitfest (2014-2017). Her short story collection and children’s story is published by Bayati Magazine.