Saturday, March 8, 2014

Science, history, and food at Dubai LitFest

With balmy weather outside and excited readers buzzing about the Intercontinental Hotel in Dubai Festival City, this year's Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, seems to have attracted far more people than in previous years; I had to park at the lower level on all three days, for one thing.

Identity panel; Arabizi debate

I went to more Arabic and bilingual events this year, one being "A Question of Identity", a discussion on identity among Arab emigrants and mixed-nationality parentage. The two half-Emirati panelists had especially interesting stories to tell, and one screened a nice documentary on mixed ancestry Emiratis.

Right after, I attended a rather heated debate on "Arabizi", the Arabic chat alphabet that uses Roman letters and numbers to represent Arabic phonology. It started well, but soon descended into a verbal brawl that went off into tangents about spoken Arabic, and sucked in even the moderator.

My last event at the festival was also bi-lingual, with three authors and one representative from the National Media Council discussing censorship in the UAE.

Amish; Sitwell

A couple of other events I really enjoyed had to do with one of my great passions: history. One was the chat with Amish, the author of The Shiva Trilogy, which is a semi-euhemeristic treatment of Indian mythology, set in the ancient Indus Valley civilization. I read the first book of the trilogy, Immortals of Meluha, way back in 2010; it was a pretty decent read, and still revolutionary in the subject it covers. I was anyway mesmerized by Amish's recounting of the role of the mythology in the culture in which he grew up, how he planned and then un-planned his writing process and the development of the story, and his struggles to get the book published. He also spoke at length about he upcoming film adaptation of his trilogy (much-anticipated), and his views on freedom of expression (particularly relevant, given the subject matter of his books).

Another had to do with both history and cooking (another passion of mine): William Sitwell's flip-through presentation of his book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes, in which he reproduces and explores historical recipes from their original sources.

Being a Sinophile of sorts, I also attended the China Panel. Unfortunately, it did not deliver as much as I had hoped it would; I thought the discussion was somewhat scattered, telling me a lot of what I already knew.

(clockwise from top left) Golden Age talk; Golden Age talk Q&A; With him at the book-signing; In the panel discussion

As a science researcher and science enthusiast, I naturally attended every single event featuring the modern giant of science and rationality: Jim Al-Khalili. These also segued nicely from SciFest Dubai the week before. Al-Khalili's talk about the Golden Age of Arabic Science (with a very good justification for calling it "Arabic" science, as opposed to "Islamic" or "Arab" science) was full of very interesting scientific and historical facts, including trivia like the origins of the word "jibberish" and the decimal point, as well as biographical details and anecdotes about some of the important figures from that era, including some of the lesser-known ones. He also did a great job representing science and science literature in a panel discussion about Big Ideas and in a closing ceremony address, respectively, with his characteristic charisma.

(clockwise from top left) Penguin Fringe word magic; A young performer beatboxing; LiTTLe MACHiNe; The play DNA from Short+Sweet Dubai

As usual, there were plenty of cultural shows at the Penguin Fringe and in the programme to fill in the time between events, including one of my favorite plays from Short+Sweet Dubai. I also loved the LiTTLe MACHiNe concert on Friday night; the very energetic trio using famous poems, from Sappho to Tennyson, as lyrics to their music was, for me, one of the surprise highlights of the festival.

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