Increasingly, the program at Dubai’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is tapping into the power books have to encourage positive change in our wellbeing, eating habits and general attitude to life. Indeed, this year’s theme, Here comes the sun, is in many ways a reflection of such optimism — and over two weekends in February in the festival’s new surroundings at the Habtoor City Hotels, its psychology, wellness and food strands offer a wide range of international thinkers, writers, chefs and mental health experts.
It all starts with a difficult question for a literary festival; just how do you express the inexpressible? In More Than Words (Friday, Al Habtoor Ballroom, 7pm), novelist and peace activist David Grossman, architect and writer Jessica Moxham, former Great British Bake Off winner turned author and mental health champion Nadiya Hussain and psychotherapist Sasha Bates discuss how they put difficult feelings into words in their own books. And, how capturing the complexity of emotions in the written word can be useful for everyone.
All these authors have individual sessions too, and Sasha Bates discussing her memoir Languages Of Loss (Saturday, Carnation, 4pm) should be particularly interesting. The unexpected death of her husband forced Bates to explore her own journey of grief — and she uses her experiences to help others both practically and emotionally.
Earlier on Saturday (Chia, 10am), Jessica Moxham talks about her superb memoir The Cracks That Let The Light In. She began by charting how her family had to adapt to a whole new way of life when her son was born with unique needs, but the book becomes a powerful, life-enhancing and instructive insight into what Moxham learned about herself — and what the world needs to learn about disability.
It’s encouraging, too, to find UAE-based authors Mathilde Loujayne and Ruzina Ahad having the platform to talk about books that champion female empowerment in the context of contemporary Islam. In their session Keeping The Faith (Sun, Chia, 6pm), Loujayne introduces Big Little Steps, her book offering a readable, engaging and motivational guide to Islam for young women. Meanwhile Ahad’s Dream Du’a Do, is subtitled A Millennial Muslimah’s Guide to Achieving Her Wildest Dreams, a manual for reaching your goals with faith as a framework.
Staying with female empowerment, Egyptian poet Hala Kazim, counsellor, author and artist Iman Mersal and behavioral scientist Pragya Agarwal come together to puncture some stereotypes about matriarchal sacrifice and selflessness in Motherhood – The Joy, Struggle and Taboos (Feb 12, Al Joud Ballroom,12pm).
Indeed, Dr Agarwal’s latest book is called (M)otherhood, exploring the breadth of the parenting experience — but in a separate session later that day (Chia, Hilton, 5pm) she will also be discussing 2020’s Sway, a fascinating deep dive into bias, how it’s imprinted so easily into everyday life — and what we can do to avoid prejudice.
This year, the festival is also offering a digital pass for selected sessions, one of which is with evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, discussing his current book Friends: Understanding the Power of Our Most Important Relationships (Feb 12, Al Joud Ballroom 2, 4pm). Dunbar is most famous for his research that we have 150 people with whom we have history and just five who might be termed intimate friends. His thinking might seem obvious — we must invest in our friendships keep them healthy and they are probably the biggest signpost to happiness and health — but it’s been made more pertinent in times of social distance.
All these important networks are formed at the earliest of ages, so it’s interesting that Nadiya Hussain will also be talking about her recent picture book Spreading My Wings (Saturday, Al Joud Ballroom 1, 12pm). Yes, it’s a session aimed at children, but it’s about confronting fears and difference — and being part of friendship groups.
Hussain, of course, made her name as a chef, and there’s also a good healthy eating strand at the festival this year. Starting with Hussain herself, who presents Saturday Supper (Sat, Al Habtoor Ballroom, 6pm). There conversation about her memoir Finding My Voice and documentary Anxiety and Me is complemented by a three-course menu inspired by the feel-good recipes in her latest books and television series.
The mental health benefits of food are also touched upon in the midweek session Memorable Flavours (February 9, Al Joud Ballroom 1, 3pm), where 12 women living in the UAE will discuss their cultural backgrounds and what they’ve learned about and from each other through food.
Elsewhere, Dr Rupy Aujla made a name for himself with the cookbook The Doctor’s Kitchen, which cast him as a straight-talking NHS doctor with a passion for getting phenomenal, nutritional, everyday ingredients onto everyone’s plates. Using medical knowledge, Aujla makes a convincing case for food being the biggest impact on health (Feb 13, Al Habtour Ballroom, 10am).
Before that, Aujla joins a session with “modern-day Bedouin” and cookbook author/presenter Zahra Abdalla for a discussion on how we can adapt traditional food for modern, healthier tastes. Cooking The Classics – Creative Liberties (February 12, Al Joud Ballroom 2, 10am) should be a fascinating look at what happens when you use quinoa rather than rice, almond milk instead of cow’s milk, and so on.
• The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature runs from Thursday February 3 until February 13 at Al Habtoor City, Dubai, with most of the programming spread across the two weekends.
Ben East has been writing about books, culture, travel and wellbeing in the Middle East for 15 years. When he’s not reading, he’s busy finding exciting places to ride his bikes.