by Sally Prosser
One of my New Year’s resolutions for 2017 is to travel more often so the theme of journeys for this year’s Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is timely. When researching a new destination, I always add some fiction into the equation as it can give an insight into a country that no guide book can provide. Stand out reads include the chilling ‘In the Country of Men’ by Hisham Matar before going to Libya (while still under the rule of Ghadafi), ‘The Map of Love’ by Ahdaf Souief which ties into the history between Britain and Egypt, Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil which leads you into a ramshackle, languorous world prior to the economic liberalisation of the 1990s in India, and ‘The Rock of Tanios’ by Amin Maalouf which I’d recommend to anyone who lives here as it trains a fractured lens on the complex and shifting identities of people living in the Levant and the region.
Planning which sessions to attend at this year’s Festival needs some mapping out and having attended every year since it started, I now have a strategy of sorts.
Unsurprisingly, I usually start with the food related authors and this year the most compelling is Nadiya Hussain. She has a huge following in the UK who, like me, were captivated by her transformation from stay at home Mum to inspiring role model, author and storyteller (both in print and film). I’ve booked a table to have afternoon tea with the winner of the Great British Bake Off but I’m well aware that Nadiya is about so much more than just cake nowadays particularly as an intelligent voice for modern, multi-cultural Britain – much needed in these troubling times. As well as leading a session for children, showcasing her new book aimed at encouraging families to cook together, she’s also on a panel discussion about contemporary women’s fiction.
Other food-focus highlights include an evening with famous Persian supper club host Sabrina Ghayour (and dinner of course), with a side order of history from Peter Frankopan. She’s also teaming up with Justine Kanter to talk about how they turned their love of food into successful businesses. Can I fit in lunch with Nisha Katona and Rana Nejem too?
One firmly in the diary is Cook for Syria, hosted by my friend and food author Dalia Dogmoch Soubra, along with poet and screenwriter Adnan Alaoda and author Noura Al Khoori. This initiative to help people affected by the conflict started as a supper club in London and became widely known through the involvement of some top Instagrammers including Clerkenwell Boy and Cutlery Chronicles. I’ll be using my own account to help spread the word too (@mycustardpie).
Jo Malone is another inspirational woman who I couldn’t miss. Her perfumed candles are legendary, but did you know she has severe dyslexia and left school without qualifications?
The world didn’t seem to be gripped by such naked intolerance when I first read Izzeldin Abuelaish’s account of life as doctor living in Gaza, “I Shall not hate”. It’s a mind-boggling account of forgiveness and even more poignant now. I’d give every single person in the world a copy if I could, and will be glued to every word at his ‘in conversation’ session.
After I’ve planned my main sessions, I then go in and fill in the gaps. I often take a chance on an author that I’ve never heard of, or haven’t read. Like meandering down a side-street when exploring a city going off the main route often bring rewards. I’ve never turned a page of anything by forensic anthropologist and author Kathy Reichs, but would lay money that this will be a compelling interview. Others on my list are war correspondent Frank Gardner talking about his debut thriller, local author Reem Al Kamali’s account of growing up in Khasab, Musandam inspired by her grandmother’s oral stories and The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books Saved My Life by Andy Miller.
Having only a few words of the language even though I’ve lived in the Middle East for 20 years, I am equally compelled and embarrassed to book for ‘Adventures in Arabic’ by Zora O’Neill whose stories about her seven years of learning to speak Arabic sound captivating (and may spur me on!). And finally, the discussion on International Women’s Day is always sold out for good reason – the debate is lively.
See you at the Festival and do join me on social media – @mycustardpie. Let me know which sessions you’ve booked. I’ve still got a few gaps!
Food and travel writer