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Literacy Activism and Serial Entrepreneurship – Isobel Belhoul

Isobel was awarded an OBE by HM Queen Elizabeth of Great Britain as “one of the most influential Brits” and Middle East Business recognized her “the most inspirational woman” living in the UAE 2 years in a row. In her quest to improve literacy over the past 50 years, Isobel has established a school, an iconic bookshop and an award-winning literary festival.

Isobel Abuhoul left Cambridge for Dubai in 1968 and has been here ever since. In 1975, Isobel set up Al Ittehad Private School and Magrudy’s bookshop – both of which are still thriving today. In 2008 Isobel founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Arab World’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, bringing people of all ages together with authors from across the world to promote education, debate and reading. The festival won the Best Festival title at the Middle East Event Awards in 2013, 2014 and 2015.

In this episode we explored Isobel’s “why?”, what drove her to establish one enterprise after another. Isobel walked me through some of the challenges she faced and what tools she used to overcome them – the value of her network came up a couple of times. We also discussed how she has managed to keep her enterprises alive 40 years on, in the face of fierce competition – by putting herself in the shoes of a demanding and impatient customer! Finally, Isobel gave us a sneak preview of the upcoming Emirates Lit Fest – I’ve bought tickets to 6 sessions and I cannot wait to attend.

The 2018 Emirates Literature Festival is running March 1-10. Tickets are available online at, but do hurry up as the sessions are selling out fast. You can also get in touch with Isobel on Twitter @UmmMansour.

Read the Transcript

Note: While When Women Win is produced as an audio recording, we are delighted to produce transcripts for those who are unable to hear. Kindly note that these are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Media is encouraged to check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Rana Nawas: (00:01)

Ladies and gentlemen, I am so excited to welcome Isobel Abulhoul onto today’s show. She’s the CEO of the Emirates Literature Foundation and director of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. In 1975, Isobel set up Al Ittihad Private School and Magrudy’s Bookshop, both of which are still thriving today. In 2008, Isobel founded the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, the Arab world’s largest celebration of the written and spoken word, bringing people of all ages together with authors from all over the world to promote education, debate, and above all else, reading. The festival won the best festival title at the Middle East Event Awards in 2013, 2014, and 2015. In this episode, we explored Isobel’s why? What drove her to establish one enterprise after another. It turns out there were just problems that needed to be solved. Isobel walked me through some of the challenges she faced and what tools she used to overcome them, like the value of her network. We also discussed how she’s managed to keep her enterprises alive forty years on by always putting herself in the shoes of a demanding and impatient customer. Finally, Isobel gave us an overview of the upcoming Emirates Literature festival, which is happening March 1 to 10. I’ve bought tickets to six sessions and I can’t wait to attend. Right, back to the interview. Let’s get into it. Isobel, thank you so much for taking the time to be on When Women Win.


Isobel Abulhoul: (01:34)

It’s my pleasure.


Rana Nawas: (01:35)

Now, you were born and educated in Cambridge, England and you moved to Dubai in 1968. Been here ever since, right?


Isobel Abulhoul: (01:41)



Rana Nawas: (01:41)

Can you tell us a bit about your early life in Cambridge and how did it influence your commitment to reading or literacy?


Isobel Abulhoul: (01:47)

I grew up in Cambridge, which hasn’t really changed over the centuries. There are the same things, the same swings, the same parks that I grew up as a child I can take my children to. So there is a lovely sense of timelessness about Cambridge. Cambridge is an ancient university city surrounded, when you walk through the cobbled paths, you’re surrounded by very old buildings and I love the sense of history and I don’t think it occurred to me as a child growing up that I was living in this amazing place. I took it for granted. Both my parents were avid readers and were library goers and so as a small children, we used to visit the library. It was a weekly visit and we’d look forward to being able to choose any book we liked from the shelves within within the Children’s section of the library. Having role models as parents who read for pleasure meant that I had no way of escaping the joy that is found in the covers of a book and my father used to read to us every night. My mother used to read to us in the day, but she’d be busy getting supper ready and my father came home from work. It was his role to read us a bedtime story and as well as reading stories, he would also recite poetry and nursery rhymes. So it’s a very special time and I’m eternally grateful to my parents for setting aside time for reading to us long beyond when we could read ourselves because sharing a book with family members or friends is a wonderful way to pass time. Now, I also grew up in a house without a television and obviously the technology that was available in the fifties is archaic compared to what we have today and so we had lots of time to stand and say as you sort of get that line from that famous poem and I think having time on your hands is great for creative imagination in young children, you know, we’d make up games that we play with friends from school and friends from the neighborhood. We had a lot of free time and there was also time for reading, you know, and developing a reading habit so that was fantastic. Reading was a very important part of my life. I caught the bug very early. I could apparently read by the time I was three, so my parents told me and I just grew up with books being extremely important.


Rana Nawas: (04:06)

Now you left Cambridge and moved here in 1968?


Isobel Abulhoul: (04:10)



Rana Nawas: (04:10)

Can you tell us a bit about life in Dubai back then? I actually only know one other couple who’s been here that long.


Isobel Abulhoul: (04:16)

Yes. Well, it was a completely different world as you can imagine. So I flew on what was BOAC in those days and it stopped three places. It was a 12 and a half hour flight and we landed in Dubai at nighttime and there was a tiny little warehouse type building and you’ve got off the plane, down the steps into sand, so it was sand under your feet and then you walked across. There was no security. You just went into a very small building where they would check your passport and then you were out into Dubai. There was one main road, there was the Maktoum Bridge had been built a few years before and you paid a toll to cross it. Twenty five fills, the currency of then and you could park anywhere. There was no traffic. You know, if you saw three cars on the road, you’re thinking gosh, everyone’s out today, and it was again, a completely different life. It was a different life from what I knew in Cambridge and it was another life as well, but I instantly fell in love with the mysticism of the Arab world, you know, from the sense and the warmth and the desert and the darkness and the stars. It was completely outside my experience and being a reader, I just felt caught up in a, as if I was Alice in the Arabian world. It was a really quite amazing thing to be able to, at the age I was, I was 18, nearly 19, so very young and probably very impressionable and a great, actually great age to travel.


Rana Nawas: (05:45)

And you came here why?


Isobel Abulhoul: (05:48)

I came because my husband was at Cambridge and we’d met in Cambridge and I came out to Dubai to meet the wider family and also to see Dubai and see if it was, you know, if I could live here really.


Rana Nawas: (06:01)

And there can’t have been many western expats here at the time?


Isobel Abulhoul: (06:03)

No, no. I think I might have been the first to marry into a local family and it was an incredible experience. I lived in Deira, near to the sea. It was before they built the cornish. So, you know, the sea would come lapping up around the door as it were. Every afternoon I would sit and ladies from around the neighborhood would come and visit because it was unusual in those days. I learned to speak Arabic very fast because I was hearing so much. So that was a great benefit as well.


Rana Nawas: (06:33)

That you were the local tourist attraction at the time.


Isobel Abulhoul: (06:35)

For a little bit, yes. It soon wore off, let me tell you. No, it was lovely.


Rana Nawas: (06:39)

That’s awesome. So you got busy pretty much right off the bat.


Isobel Abulhoul: (06:44)

I worked, originally I worked at Dubai Infant School which was a nursery school. It was on Dubai side, so I would cross there every day and after a few years we started our family and when our children were quite small, it was first two, I have five children, is where are they going to go to school? And we felt it was important that they had the best of educations, but that it could cross both languages and so the idea was born that we would cofound the Ittihad School, private school, and the late Sheikh Rashid the ruler donated the land and the finance to build it and there was a board of governors, so it was a not for profit institution. It was a wonderful thing to see come together and again, I think what was great about those years was that anything was possible. You didn’t feel that there were barriers or you couldn’t do this or you couldn’t do that. It was, well, if it’s needed, let’s do it and I think there were a lot of entrepreneurs at that time who were able to take advantage of this wonderful atmosphere. It was opened in 1975 and there are two branches, or maybe even three branches. It’s still going strong today.


Rana Nawas: (07:56)

Still going, amazing. So you needed a bilingual education for your kids that wasn’t available. So you went out and set it up.


Isobel Abulhoul: (08:01)

Yes. Yes and I think that’s what people were doing. There was something needed. So you would think, well, either I can say aw it’s not going to happen or I can try and do it myself. So there was a lot of other people doing a similar kind of things and I have to say that being a woman was no drawback whatsoever. Not then, and not now.


Rana Nawas: (08:22)

But setting up a school in 1975, what challenges did you face back then?


Isobel Abulhoul: (08:28)

What is the best type of education? And I’d obviously grown up in UK, so I knew that education, but I then started to research the latest trends in education and they had what was called an integrated day. So that the classroom teacher, I’m talking about primary schools here, you wouldn’t just study Arabic, English, maths, geography, it would be an integrated day. So one topic would lead into another. So you could be studying something or you could read a story, but there would be maths that would fit into that story. So this was quite a novel way of education and one of my mother’s friends was a retired headmistress, very popular primary school in Cambridge and she offered to help with interviewing the teachers and the potential headmistress. So there’s always, you just have to do a little bit of, you just have to find the right people to help you if you need and you shouldn’t be worried about asking.


Rana Nawas: (09:24)

That’s a really great actionable tip for entrepreneurs everywhere.


Isobel Abulhoul: (09:27)



Rana Nawas: (09:28)

Leverage your network to find the right people to help you.


Isobel Abulhoul: (09:31)

Yes and don’t be frightened of asking because you’re not in a way doing it for yourself, you know, it was tapping into she was very happy to help an educational endeavor so that was the beginning was to get, you know, I’m a great believer that the human resource for any school or any education or institute, it’s so important to get the right people who have that same vision.


Rana Nawas: (09:54)

And what would you say were other success factors in this endeavor?


Isobel Abulhoul: (09:57)

Well, it was exciting because there was nothing else like it.


Rana Nawas: (10:02)

No competition.


Isobel Abulhoul: (10:02)

And it was, no, it was way ahead of its time. Potentially too early because we were going for what was the latest on offer in an established educational system and here we were where Dubai was not at the same level, so it was just such an eyeopening kind of way that every classroom had two teachers, one Arabic speaker and one English speaker and you had this integrated day and, you know, there was a primary swimming pool and things like that, which were not common, certainly not in government schools. At that time you had private English speaking school, you had an Indian school, but there was not the wealth of educational institutions that there are today.


Rana Nawas: (10:42)

I’d like to tell the listeners a bit about Magrudy’s, Isobel. Because it is Dubai’s first bookshop and still going very strong. I live beside it and when I direct people to my house all I need to tell them as I lived behind Magrudy’s. So could you tell us a bit about why you set that up?


Isobel Abulhoul: (10:59)

It was a natural follow on, really, from cofounding Ittihad Private School. The next thing was, well, you know, that’s up and running. What am I going to do now? And I felt that there was a lack of educational toys in Dubai at that time, so having had no experience whatsoever of retail or how to go about it, we decided to set up an educational toy shop and so I knew all of the toys that I felt it should have there. But I also felt that it should have books. Now in those days, retail was very segmented, so bookshops were bookshops, toy shops were toy shops, butchers sold meat and so on. It was pre really supermarket days. So, but I didn’t have that mindset because I’d never done it before. So I felt that it was absolutely right that we should have children’s books within an educational toy shop. So I had a big collection of books that I brought with me. I looked in the front of the books and the address of all the publishers and then I typed letters and wrote to them, set up Magrudy’s. So we got printed letterhead, we took a license and then a for six months I got busy with getting all the catalogs, placing orders and where I couldn’t find an address, I would phone up the British embassy or the American embassy and asked for company details and there was no internet. There was no even telex in that in that time or faxes. So everything would have to be done by posts and it would have to go and you’d have to wait for the reply and then you’d send off your orders. So things took a lot longer. It would have been much easier in today’s world to do that than it was then.


Rana Nawas: (12:38)

So you were writing to publishers to send you books?


Isobel Abulhoul: (12:41)

To send me the catalog off their books.


Rana Nawas: (12:43)



Isobel Abulhoul: (12:43)

So they would then send catalogs. So they all produce catalogs, whether it was a toy manufacturer or a publisher. They had a catalog and those would be updated every year or six months. So then I would go through that and then I would type in order and take a carbon copy and filed the carbon copy and send it off and then I had to work out once I place the orders, how to pay and also, you know, how to pay was it going to be bilateral credit. Was it going to be by bankers draft. Do we set up a bank account in the UK? So there are all these little things that I had to work out what would work best and then it was shipping it here. So I then again got in touch with the British embassy and said, I’m looking for someone who will collate orders, so a freight forwarder, until they gave me two or three companies. I wrote to them. I selected one and then they collected all the orders together so I gave their address and all the first shipment came out in a 40 foot container. But what the shipping company hadn’t realized was that the Rashid container port was not yet open. It opened the next year. So this container came and it had nowhere to go back to, but we found one of my husband’s friends actually bought it and used it as a storage on a building site or something. So things worked out and we opened Magrudy’s in 1975 and books grew and grew and it was very much that I always felt I should listen to customers. What did they want? What kind of products did they feel we should stock? So the books were obviously, there was a great hunger for books. So having started off with children’s books, it was their mother and baby books, Cook Books, fiction and so on until we opened a fully fledged bookshop.


Rana Nawas: (14:26)

Wow and what, along the way, what surprised you as you are establishing a bookshop to cater to the sort of local interests? What didn’t you expect?


Isobel Abulhoul: (14:35)

Nothing really. I don’t think there was any surprises other than that it was not difficult. It was actually not difficult. It was because I could always put myself in the shoes of a customer. So when you are planning anything, you’ve always got to think about the end user. So who is this for? And as long as it was for me or my, you know, my sort of Mrs. Ordinary, that’s what I would say. Then you will know instinctively what other people want, you know, whether it’s toys, whether it’s cars, whether it’s stationary and so on and so forth. So I don’t think there was any surprises really along the way and it was just a case of always responding to customers. No matter what you do, you’ve got to listen to the customers, whether it’s complaints, whether it’s why don’t you start this or whether it, whatever they’re saying it is really important to listen to them. So what makes up a good retail outlet? You’ve got to have good the right product at the right price and you’ve got to have good customer service and again, I’m a very demanding customer so I could always, you know, I would think about, I don’t have time so I’m always in a rush, you know, I had got two small children and another one on the way. I was impatient and that was quite a good thing because then I could think about the process and that was the other thing that I think was helpful. I could walk myself in my mind through processes. So from the person arriving in a shop, you know, what will they do and how will that experience be for them and at that stage in Dubai when you went into a shop, often it would be the stuff would be behind a counter, you couldn’t touch it and I feel it’s very important that you can put your hands on things and if it’s a book you want to open it. So that was new in Dubai at that time. But the other thing was that every invoice was handwritten with a carbon copy. So and I thought this is ridiculous. This is such a waste of time and so we invested in proper till machines that would give you a receipt and then you could record what people had bough and I also was an early investor in software. So when the bookshop got going I found out when I used to go back on my summer holidays or things like that, what were bookshops in say UK using and found out what the software was and invested in specialist software and also books in print database from AC Nielsen. So these were important technological tools that would help you be able to operate at a much higher level.


Rana Nawas: (17:11)

So you were learning from best in class elsewhere?


Isobel Abulhoul: (17:15)



Rana Nawas: (17:15)

And bringing it here.


Isobel Abulhoul: (17:15)

Yes and I think that’s a great thing to do. Don’t ever, you know, if you want to know how to do a thing, you look for the best models there are out there and it’s no shame to copy or to find out information about how they do it. Rather than you saying no, I’m going to start from right from the beginning. Why? So that’s a good point.


Rana Nawas: (17:35)

Yep and at the beginning, Magrudy’s didn’t have any competition. Now over the past 40 something years, competition has grown and grown.


Isobel Abulhoul: (17:42)



Rana Nawas: (17:42)

Magrudy’s is still there. So what is, how have you adapted to this changing landscape here?


Isobel Abulhoul: (17:47)

Well, I think you need to always think about product. I think it’s the product. So what selection of books. We’ve always been extremely concerned to have a very strong offering for children and that still goes on today. We stock probably the best selection of study guides for children in the UAE, you know, so you have to have a reason for people to visit you. I think also the mix of toys, good toys and books, is a very good mix and it means that children visit the store and it becomes a pleasure for them because they may end up choosing a book, but they’ve also got the toy element and you know, who doesn’t like toys, you know, children love toys.


Rana Nawas: (18:30)

I have a hard time getting my three year old away from the toys to the books.


Isobel Abulhoul: (18:34)



Rana Nawas: (18:34)

I think he’s still not at that age. At what age would you say kids can start choosing their own books?


Isobel Abulhoul: (18:38)

I think that they would probably be a bit bit older than that, but what is a good thing to do is for the mother or father or whoever is with the children is to pick up two or three books that you like and then you, so you’ve made a selection, you’ve made a short list, and then you sit with your three year old and see which one. Then they can choose from that rather than this vast array, which can be a bit overwhelming for three year old.


Rana Nawas: (19:03)

All right. Let’s shift gears a little bit, Isobel now, and talk about another icon of Dubai’s cultural scene which is the Emirates Airlines Literature Festival, which you founded in 2008 and the festival won, now let me read this because these are extensive awards. The festival won the best festival title at the Middle East Event Awards in 2013, 2014, and 2015, and in 2016 was declared best family friendly day out at the Time Out Dubai kids awards and favorite festival at the What’s On Dubai Award. So plenty, plenty of awards. How did the festival come about?


Isobel Abulhoul: (19:41)

I was just a chance conversation with someone. I had a ladies lunch at home and I happened to be talking a fellow book seller was passing through Dubai and had said, does Dubai have a literary festival? I said, no and we got talking about wouldn’t it be a great idea? And I’d mentioned it to this guest who’d come to the lunch and a couple of days later she wrote back to me and said it was a lovely lunch, great to meet all those people. Why don’t you pitch the idea of a literary festival to Emirates? And so I did. I had not thought about it. It was literally two conversations. But then I thought, gosh, it would be great and I’d never been to a literary festival at that stage. So I had a vision of how I imagined the literary festival would be, which was colored a lot by my time in Dubai and how I thought of festival should be. So we had an opening ceremony. We had camels, we had horses. It was not like any other literary festival I’ve been to but thank goodness because it definitely has developed its own personality over the years, which have been shaped by the location it’s. Been shaped by, I think the Arab ideal of hospitality has been a very important part of that and we aim to bring authors from around the world and to let them make friends with Emirati writers and writers from other places and that happens year in, year out. We also have a extensive cultural and social program for authors. So they get to see a bit of the real Dubai. They get to unpeel the surface and get underneath and they are always entranced by that experience.


Rana Nawas: (21:22)

It really is such an entrepreneurial thing. I mean, literature festivals. Yeah, they happen all over the world. But here’s you doing it and you’d never attended one.


Isobel Abulhoul: (21:29)

Yes. But that’s absolutely true. But what I did have was I’d had, by that time 30, probably 35 years of experience of being a bookseller. Of experience of seeing what the trends were in terms of what people bought and what people like to buy. I’d done book signings, which is a sort of, I suppose a practice in, you know, how do you manage when you have crowds and all of these things. So I had the connections, the network, which again, is an incredibly important thing. I got a lot of sort of data I suppose from. I’d got all the publishers connections, you know, from visiting the various trade fairs. From all the orders we’ve placed over the years. So that made it a lot easier for me, but that it was, I certainly would not say it was easy trying to start something from scratch.


Rana Nawas: (22:23)

You had all the little pieces but you wanted to scale up big time. It’s not like one book signing.


Isobel Abulhoul: (22:28)



Rana Nawas: (22:30)

It’s like 30 signings.


Isobel Abulhoul: (22:30)

No and it’s a completely different, also completely different focus. So you are, it is where readers meet writers, so it’s not like a book fair. It’s not like a book signing. It is actually the conversation that goes on in the venue between the writer and the readers or potential readers and then the discovery and then thinking about how do we make this meaningful. Say for example, if you’re a non Arabic speaker and we have famous Arab writers, so we put in from the beginning we had simultaneous translation and again that’s was one of the advantages that you can think through. You have to just go back to square one and you have to walk yourself through every single bit of it and then say, well, how am I going to do this? How can we resolve that? Where are the audiences coming from? Who would be interested in this? How do we get the people who are not interested in it to come? And so you have to ask yourself all the time a series of questions and then you have to map out. A great way of learning to do this is trying to plan children’s parties at home. I always used to have children’s parties at home and I absolutely love children’s parties and I would plan very complicated types of parties, which seemed to be a great hit and that wasthe good, you know, it’s an event. An event is an event. They’re always the same. You have to plan meticulously, you have to have everything in place and you have to have plan B. Great believer in plan B.


Rana Nawas: (23:57)

Okay. Can you give us an example of where you had to use a plan B?


Isobel Abulhoul: (24:00)

Oh, lots of times. So when we had events rained off one year because the schools are all closed, there was like torrential downpour and they close the schools and we had lots of education day. We’d got authors going out to various areas and they couldn’t get there. So we decided at midnight that what we would do is put out a message on the radio to say that would be holding [inaudible]. Whichever parents and children could get there, we were holding a combined event with these authors who’d been out at schools at 10:00 that morning and we had a great turnout and it was better than nothing. So sometimes, you know, the weather, things like that are out of your control. So we always have to be quick on our feet. Anyone planning live events, you have to be able to assess quickly and come to a decision. So I think, you know, there’s been multiple, small, big, medium, anyone who’s familiar with events will know that, that you have to be on your toes. The thing is that there is an absolutely fantastic team at the heart of the festival and they all are experts within their fields and again, it’s been a wonderful experience for me to work with with a variety of people, heavily female. We are a heavily female organization, not through choice. It’s just that’s what, how it’s happened. I think it’s just interesting that it is not through planning it that way, but it’s just that’s how it’s happened. Women are more definitely attracted to work in something they’re passionate about and I think that has been for many of the team members, they share the same passion and it’s then very fulfilling, even though it’s frustrating and it’s tiring, it’s fulfilling because you know that what you’re doing is benefiting society longterm.


Rana Nawas: (25:55)

You mentioned this earlier, but can you go into more detail on how you select the authors that you invite?


Isobel Abulhoul: (26:01)

Right. So the author selection is that we start 18 months out, so each festival, I’m running the two festivals, 2019 and the one that’s coming in just over a month’s time, 2018. So we start back last year and we have a wishlist of authors that are made up, team selection. Audiences who’ve been before will say to us oh, you know, we carry out surveys, we collect as many names as possible. We meet this April, we’ll meet with publishers at London Book Fair, who will pitch authors. We follow reviews, new publications, prize winners. So it’s a variety of things and it’s a bit like casting your net so you have to spread your net wide and we might send out, you know, 300, 400 invitations to get to our 100 plus 160 plus authors attending it because it is a bit, it’s not potch luck, it’s just that we know that there’s going to be officers who can’t travel or who are busy writing or don’t fancy coming for whatever reason are going to say no, but we still ask them.


Rana Nawas: (27:14)

But and that’s amazing. You expect 160 authors this year?


Isobel Abulhoul: (27:17)

We’ve got 180 this year.


Rana Nawas: (27:19)

Wow, great.


Isobel Abulhoul: (27:20)



Rana Nawas: (27:21)

Isobel, to what extent is your work censored when you invite authors or invite them to speak?


Isobel Abulhoul: (27:26)

It’s not at all.


Rana Nawas: (27:27)

Not at all.


Isobel Abulhoul: (27:27)

There’s no censorship. We are free to invite who we like, but the choices that govern who we invite are, what do audiences want to see or who do we think they haven’t yet discovered and we want them to discover because we know once they do, they’ll be enamored. So it is very much that the choice of the team about who we think and also the balance. So we’re looking at in 2018 we’ve got 47 different nationalities. So that’s a very important thing that we don’t say choose an author because of nationality, but we definitely try to have diversity in our lineup and then we’re looking at diversity in the genre. So we try to cover as many genres possible because then there is more opportunity for anyone to come along and say I’d enjoy that or yes, that’s for me. I’m out of the 250 sessions on offer. Across the age groups, across the nationalities, across the genre, we have something for everyone.


Rana Nawas: (28:29)

And I mean, I’m hearing that you live, breathe, eat the customer. I mean you just, it’s like you’re thinking of the customer at every moment.


Isobel Abulhoul: (28:37)

The end.


Rana Nawas: (28:38)

The end user.


Isobel Abulhoul: (28:39)

Yeah. That is the person we want to go away and say, wow, I had a great experience because then we’ve succeeded. If we don’t do that, we fail, and it is that we want people to be touched by the festival. We want them to come along and be dazzled, be entertained, be educated to be surprised. All of those emotions. Sitting in a live venue listening to some world famous authors who change you. You will be changed when you come out of that. You will start to think about things differently and that’s an amazing thing and particularly amazing for young people to have that, you know. I meet regularly young women when I’ve been giving talks at various, the divide chamber of Commerce, one young lady stood up and said, I want you to know, a young Emirati lady, that I took part in one of the student competitions, the Chevron Readers’ Cup as a result of that, I changed the degree I did and my future career and this happens multiple times that we will inspire, not we, but the authors and the experience inspire young people or people at any stage of their career to think I’m going to do something differently. I’m going to try this, you know, it just somehow rather gives them that confidence to think about their own dreams and achieve them.


Rana Nawas: (30:05)

Yes. Real impact that you see every year.


Isobel Abulhoul: (30:08)



Rana Nawas: (30:10)

This year, 2018 Emirates Literature Festival is running March 1-10.


Isobel Abulhoul: (30:15)



Rana Nawas: (30:15)

And I guess we’ve talked about what listeners can expect to find. Is there anything going on different this year?


Isobel Abulhoul: (30:23)

There’s always, every year is different and that again has been an important part of why the festival has grown from strengths to strength. That it’s not the if you go once, you’ve done that. You can tick that box because every single year will be different author and different themes and different types of events going on. So for 2018, our 10th anniversary, we’ve got a very special night called the For the Love of Words and it’s happening at Dubai Opera and it’s got the world’s most renowned performance poets both in Arabic and English and so it’s a medley of performance poets delivering their poems in this iconic venue and poetry is very important in this part of the world, but it is also one of the fastest growing areas of interest is performance poetry across the world. It’s becoming more and more popular and if you see these people perform, you will never think about words in the same way again. So we’ve called it For the Love of Words and that is one very special event. It’s a year of Zayed, so we’ve got His Excellency Zaki Nusseibeh who is the minister of state, but also was the interpreter for Sheikh Zayed since 1968 and cultural advisor is talking about his personal experiences with the late Sheikh Zayed. So again, you will get one chance. He’s going to be talking in English because we think that a lot of expats, there is simultaneous translation into Arabic, but we thought it was important to have it in English so that as many people as possible can benefit from learning from all of the anecdotes that Zaki’s going to be telling us about his time with the late great founding father of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed. So we’ve got so many sessions that it is almost impossible to know where to start. Omar Saif Ghobash, the author of “Letters to a Young Muslim” will be in conversation with Tom Fletcher, who was the youngest diplomat to Lebanon and UK diplomat and they’re talking about digital diplomacy. Well, you’ve only got to look at your twitter feed or at social media to understand what a challenge it must be for today’s diplomats when presidents and prime ministers from around the world are almost writing policy on twitter. I mean it’s just, it’s just mind blowing. So that is a session that I definitely will be going to. International Women’s Day falls right within the festival. So it’s Thursday, the 8th of March and we have a wonderful event that evening. So for any women listening to this come along to that event, I think it’s eight or 9:00 at night and we have got Cheryl Strayed the author of her memoir “Wild.” We’ve got Her Excellency Noura Al Kaabi, the Minister of Culture and knowledge development. We’ve got two more wonderful authors on their Kamila Shamsie, an amazing writer, and there’s one more and they’re going to be in conversation with Jenni Murray, of radio for women’s hour. So it’s an amazing. You can find all the details on, but I absolutely recommend coming along to International Women’s Day and it’s pressed to progress. The theme.


Rana Nawas: (33:42)

Again, just for the listeners, International Women’s Day is March 8th.


Isobel Abulhoul: (33:47)



Rana Nawas: (33:47)

And that’s when the event will be and all these events you talked about, whether, you know, Zaki Nusseibeh’s event or Dubai opera, are they all available to everyone? You just go online, buy a ticket, and show up?


Isobel Abulhoul: (33:58)

Yes, as long as they’re not sold out. They are selling out very fast.


Rana Nawas: (34:03)

And that


Isobel Abulhoul: (34:05)



Rana Nawas: (34:06)

Wonderful. Thank you. And, Isobel, all ages can attend?


Isobel Abulhoul: (34:09)



Isobel Abulhoul: (34:09)

Is there’s stuff for everyone? I mean, how young?


Isobel Abulhoul: (34:11)

Yes, there’s stuff for everyone. Well, I would say from two plus there are. We got some wonderful picture book writers and illustrators. There’s lots of children’s workshops where they can get their hands dirty and draw or sing along with various amazing children’s authors. So we put the ages against all of the children’s sessions. We have a special children’s program which is a big fold out thing, which has got lots of illustrations in it. So it’s very, very enticing for children to select the sessions they want to go to.


Rana Nawas: (34:42)

Okay, wonderful. Well, I’m just gonna come to a close shortly, Isobel, I was wondering if I could ask you a couple of personal questions just to get to know you a little bit better. For example, what’s your most influential book and why?


Isobel Abulhoul: (34:57)

The book that I would always say is my favorite book is “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway and I read this as a teenager and I’ve returned to this book many, many times, and I’m never fail to admire Hemingway for his incredible use of language. I do not know how he can create such images in my mind with such sparse language. He’s just a master.


Rana Nawas: (35:25)

If you could have a coffee with one person from history and it couldn’t be Hemingway, who would it be?


Isobel Abulhoul: (35:30)

It would be Queen Elizabeth the First.


Rana Nawas: (35:32)

Ah, why?


Isobel Abulhoul: (35:33)

Because I think she was the ultimate diplomat. She had an incredibly difficult time, you know, her mother was executed by her husband Henry the Eighth. So he executed Amber Lynn. Elizabeth had a very difficult childhood growing up and then by dent of the half brother succumbed to illness and then Queen Mary also was taken and so she became queen and it was such a precarious time throughout her whole rein and she never married, but she played countries and politicians one off against the other. So I’ve just got admiration for how clever she was and how difficult as a female life must have been for her.


Rana Nawas: (36:23)

Well, how do you switch off when you feel overwhelmed.


Isobel Abulhoul: (36:26)

With a book.


Rana Nawas: (36:27)



Isobel Abulhoul: (36:27)

Books are a place that I, so if I’m stressed, which I’m not very often, I think I’m quite good at coping with stress, I will just pick up a book, a book of fiction, and I will lose myself within its covers and get very involved in the characters and then, you know, the worries that I have, all the stress that I have just melts away.


Rana Nawas: (36:48)

I mean, for me it’s about, I read too much nonfiction and it’s one of my new year’s resolutions. I need to read more fiction. The trouble is I love good fiction and I hate bad stuff. So any tips you have for me on how to,


Isobel Abulhoul: (37:01)

Yes, try and read books that have been shortlisted or win literary prizes. So you’ve got the Man Booker Prize, you’ve got the Costa Awards, you’ve got the Pulitzer Prize, and there are various other prizes and you will find some amazing books. You might love some of them, you might hate some of them, but they will be by great writers. So that’s what I always spend my time doing is reading literary fiction because I do absolutely love it and also 21st century, 20th century classics, you know, you’ve got the Hemingway’s, the Orwell’s, Graham Greenes, John Steinbeck. I mean, I could go back and read “To Kill a Mockingbird” again and again and again. They are absolutely amazing books and there’s probably a lot of twenty century classics. I still could, I still haven’t read and I want to. So there is a wealth of material out there.


Rana Nawas: (37:56)

Because, for example, Murakami.


Isobel Abulhoul: (37:58)



Rana Nawas: (37:58)

Everybody loves, as in very popular award winning, all that. I just don’t get his books.


Isobel Abulhoul: (38:03)

Okay. Try Kazuo Ishiguro “Never Let Me Go.” He was a Nobel laureate literature for 2017. He has a whole body of work, the remains of the day, but one of my favorite and most frightening tale is “Never Let Me Go.”


Rana Nawas: (38:22)

Oh, I don’t know that one.


Isobel Abulhoul: (38:23)

“Never Let Me Go.”


Rana Nawas: (38:24)

“Never Let Me Go,” excellent. Thank you. Thank you so much, Isobel. I guess one last question is, is there something you wish people would ask you more often?


Isobel Abulhoul: (38:34)

No. In a nutshell, no and there’s nothing in my life I’ve regretted. I have to say that I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed to have lived the life I’ve led and don’t be frightened of mistakes because you will make mistakes. None of us are perfect, but you move on from those mistakes. Don’t beat yourself up because things have gone wrong. You always try your best. Try and think things through, but then move on. Do not dwell on the past.


Rana Nawas: (39:06)

And also I’ve heard you talk before about the mom guilt. You need to ditch the working mom guilt.


Isobel Abulhoul: (39:10)

Yes, absolutely. It is. It’s tough for women. You know, this is a tough thing. How can you do both jobs perfectly? W you have to accept you can’t. You do your best. Everydayy you wake up in the morning and you look at the lovely, you know, the tree in the garden or the flower in the vase or your wonderful child and say how lucky you are. Just remember how lucky you are and don’t dwell on the challenges you have of juggling all these balls in the air and not dropping them.


Rana Nawas: (39:37)

Lovely. Thank you so much, Isobel, for your time.


Isobel Abulhoul: (39:39)

It’s my pleasure. Thank you.


Rana Nawas: (39:42)

I hope you enjoyed today’s episode. You can check out the show notes and more episodes at or search When Women Win on Itunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. I’d also love to hear your feedback and ideas for who I should bring on the show. You can find me on Instagram @RanaNawas. Thanks and have a great day.



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