Different Dialogues : Ms. Isobel Abulhoul

In conversation with Ms. Isobel Abulhoul.
Professional Background: Founder of Magrudy’s Bookstore, Dubai, UAE. Founder-Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, Dubai, UAE. Co-Host of the weekly radio programme Talking Of Books on 103.8 FM. Awarded the Cultural Personality of the Year by Dr. H. H. Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah in 2010. An OBE by H. M. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain in 2012.

The mid-June morning had a designation for me – that is, I was meeting up with Isobel Abulhoul, at her office in Al Bastakiya. In this historic district of Dubai, UAE, on the whole level, nothing has really changed in Al Bastakiya and it is not meant to change! Al Bastakiya’s construction dates back to the 1890’s, when it became an impressionable locality of rich merchants hailing from Bastak region of Iran. In those days, the wind towers known as bajreels, indicated the wealth and position of the owner. Now, Al Bastakiya has a small number of traditional shops and art galleries flocking close together, and all it requires is to take a rambling walk to enjoy their displays. Out here, there are also organizations which manage ideas linked with literature and cultural heritage of the land. For instance, Isobel Abulhoul has her office here. She, who founded and is the Director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, leaves the everyday humdrum to come to Al Bastakiya to simply enjoy what she enjoys with unending passion: the vision of planning literary events in UAE.

As I alighted from my car, a narrow, not-so-winding lane brought me to the door of Isobel Abulhoul’s work place. An unknown man in the vicinity was generous enough to show me right up to the door of my destination. I stepped into a courtyard space matching the features of the surrounding buildings. I was welcomed into a room that had the effectiveness to display the character of its erstwhile era. The air-conditioned room was complacently simple and neat. The flavour of true knowledge was displayed in the form of books standing on shelves. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, At Home by Bill Bryson, Crash of the Titans by Greg Farrell, Blue Heaven by C. J. Box remained obvious to my notice. Posters of TAALEEM – Poetry Award Competition and LitFest (bringing students of all ages to enter) drew my attention even more – while I waited for Isobel Abulhoul. I was also thinking how in a way, the aura of the room inter-related to offer me an introduction to Isobel, and her dedicated vocation.

First, there is a spontaneous warmth in Isobel when I meet her. And as she requests for us, some lemon-ginger tea, our conversation on how she was initiated into loving books, begins. She narrates to me how both her parents in Cambridge (UK) were book worms and how in the evenings, the family sat and read. I learn from her that there were lots of second-hand-books at home along with daily newspapers to catch up with. ‘My father was a chartered accountant and my mother was a nurse. Both of them loved me and my brother and they were very encouraging’, Isobel tells me. ‘I loved school, my uniform, my books. I was travel-curious, I was never frightened to ask questions – you must ask, otherwise, how will we learn?’ I listen to Isobel, nodding in agreement. I grasp in no time that Isobel has been an avid reader all her life. Up to this day, when she has a dozen critical things to assemble and follow: by the way of planning events, guiding those who are assisting her, giving feedback to press and media – Isobel will never miss on book-reading. ‘I am addicted to books. I love stories and characters in books. Reading is leisure. I love fiction and sample chapters. I am a dreamer. Reading is almost like a spiritual experience, because you can have a dialogue with a writer who died a hundred years back, but he has stirred you with his story’, Isobel expresses. In a philosophy-raising example, she continues, ‘It is very hard to be in two places. So enjoy the moment. Enjoy the present. I walk into the courtyard, I feel the breeze and I take time to just stand there and switch off. The greatest thoughts come when you switch off’. I am in no scale of confusion and I tell her so. I tell her broadly how the ‘Indian’ philosophy works in the same pattern of enjoying: the present moment and how we empty out the non-essentials from our mind to achieve tranquility. The truth in our conversation expands further. Isobel is definitely of the view that the paraphernalia of growing materialism is only having the worth of giving us all fleeting happiness. ‘I think, materialism is a bane. I feel the greatness in watching the sunset! I am a bit of a spiritual person. I also know I have to improve and I am far from perfect. But I love being what I am and what I am doing’. I again nod in agreement.

Isobel was born and educated in Cambridge and came to Dubai in 1968 after meeting her husband, Abdullah. The two, came to know each other while they were in college in Cambridge. Ever since those years, Dubai has been her home. Isobel taught at the Dubai Infants School for several years before her involvement in setting up Al Ittihad Private School and soon after co-founded Magrudy’s in 1975. In addition to Magrudy’s, with the support of the Mohammed Bin Rashid Foundation, Isobel began a new reading and teaching scheme in Arabic, called Bustan Al Qusas, which empowered teachers to write and use their own stories. In 2008 Isobel founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Middle East’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, bringing people of all ages together with authors across the world to promote education, debate and above all else, reading. Additionally, Isobel enabled 13 Emirati students from Dubai Women’s College to publish their first children’s books that were launched at the 2010 Festival of Literature.

When I asked Isobel about how she achieves the sense of time-management, she quickly answers, ‘I am very organized. I hate clutter. With five children, I made sure that as a mother, I was a good planner. I had to be a planner for gym, school, extracurricular activities of kids’.

It was interesting to know from Isobel that the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature was established out of a conversation at a ladies lunch. ‘Does Dubai have a Literary Festival?’ ‘No’, said Isobel to the question. That’s how the whole idea was born! 2013 will be the festival’s fifth year of celebration and hats off to Isobel for making the event so successful. She is someone who works every single day of the week – up to eight or ten hours a day. She is a person who does not believe in days off. She can recharge her batteries very fast. Wow! ‘I read through the night, I’m addicted to books. At least three hours a day, I must read. I love this addiction’, Isobel told me with absolute certainty. As the co-host of ‘Talking of Books’, that is broadcast weekly on Dubai Eye 103.8 – Isobel finds enjoyment to spend Saturday afternoons, conducting this show.

Awarded the Cultural Personality of the Year by Dr. H. H. Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the Ruler of Sharjah in 2010 and an OBE by H. M. Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain in 2012, Isobel has received official recognition for her tireless campaign to improve literacy and a love of books, particularly for children.

Finally, as our interview was drawing close to an end, I asked Isobel, ‘What’s your message for my readers? How do you feel after receiving such prestigious awards?’ Isobel simply said, ‘If you do anything, open that door of books of reading. Change even one person to read. Kindle is not a replacement for books'. About the awards, the lady was reflecting and said, ‘The awards I received, my parents, they would have loved them. My mother would have danced in the air. It is wonderful to get public recognition. We work because we want to’. I had one more question for her. ‘What is it that you have learnt from life?’ I asked. Isobel smiled and replied, ‘There’s the saying, behind every cloud there is a silver lining. My experience is if one door closes, another door opens’.

Isobel and myself shook hands and I walked past the very sunny courtyard, now experiencing the noon’s intensest heat. I was thinking of the bustling Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – 2013. Apart from the well-spent hours with Isobel Abulhoul, I was additionally excited, very excited to be a part of the international event!

Q 1. What has been the turning point of your life?
A. Coming to Dubai in 1968 changed the map of my life. Dubai has been home ever since and in a strange way, I felt I had come home when I first arrived.

Q 2. If you could go back in time, what would you want to do?
A. I would not change anything. Of course, I have made a large number of mistakes in the course of my life so far, but I think that this is part of the process of becoming who we are.

Q 3. What are your future dreams?
A. I firmly believe that we should embrace ‘now’ and make the most of it. I do dream, but actually living each moment is much more exciting. I suppose most of my dreaming is actually escape into the world of books where any dream is possible.

Geeta Chhabra

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