Back from the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the UAE and still processing the whole thing. What an amazing trip! Such a privilege and a pleasure. Hard work but enough time to recover.
Heat – oh yes, huge heat! For them, it was Spring and they were saying they were just beginning to feel real heat in the air. It was “only” about 30 degrees, but in the summer it can go up to 50. Remind me not to go there in Summer… But although the heat was immense, it was never a problem because everywhere had air-con. So I’d walk out of the hotel and stand for a few seconds waiting for my transport and thinking I was in a sauna – lovely!
Sand – Sharjah is modern skyscrapers with open sandy spaces between. No low buildings or houses at all. No building is more than 40 years old because before that there was nothing more than a few huts and sand – no oil = no money.
Women – strong women, oh yes! Sharjah is the most conservative emirate – no alcohol, strict rules for dress, girls and boys usually taught separately from 11 – yet there was NO sense of subservience from emirati women. In the Q&A after my panel, no way was any woman going to wait for men to speak her mind. Huge confidence and composure. Intriguing.
Massive respect for children’s literature – this was the Children’s Reading Festival but the speakers and audience for the panels consisted of serious adults, academics with strings of letters, all talking with obvious respect for children’s literature. This was a topic worth discussing, was the meme. No question. Western people, take note.
Hospitality – faultless. Thanks to the thoughtful efficiency of Midas PR (who even brought some of my books with them and displayed them at the panel for me) and the generosity of the festival, we were royally looked after. Someone accompanied me to every school event, found everything I needed, contacted me regularly to make sure I was OK. Cars were laid on, not just for taking us to our events but also for sight-seeing.
So, when one of my events was cancelled because the school had an exam clash and I had a surprise free day, a driver took me Dubai, where I had coffee with a writer friend, Liz Fenwick; then another driver brought fellow SCRF speaker, John Dougherty, to join me, waited while we went up the tallest building in the world, and took us back again.
Prices – ridic cheap. Four pashminas for under £10. In total.
Dinner in the desert – magic. Some of us – I’m looking at you, Tanya Landman and Holly Web – found ourselves being asked to join a singsong with some Egyptians (I think) and I regret to say that the only British song we could think of was London Bridge is Falling Down, which we sang in 3-part round, with gusto if nothing else. All this without the help of any alcohol AT ALL.
The schools – I visited three international schools and was wonderfully welcomed. I talked to 10-12yo boys and girls, 11-13yo boys and 14-16yo boys and girls together, all about the brain and stress, which they’d all asked for. Lots of different nationalities. And all with the same stresses and worries and behaviours. Cultures and societal rules may differ, but people are all the same underneath. That may sound obvious and in many contexts not be worth mentioning, so obvious is it, but in terms of adolescence, people often expect teenagers in different cultures to be different. In my experience they are not, or at last there are far more (and more interesting) similarities. Sadly, I didn’t have the chance to talk to parents and teachers, as I did when I went to Malaysia and Brunei.
One of the schools presented me with a leather-bound Certificate of Appreciation, some red roses and a pizza. Another gave me a special mug. Loads of young people emailed me, before and after – which is one of the reasons I know their problems are all the same the world over.
I was not being paid a fee, but I knew there would be other benefits and that it would be worth spending at least a week in preparation and a week away: the opportunity to meet people from different countries, new experiences and ideas. I was right about that.
I am very grateful to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, which is funded by the emir and his daughter, both hugely committed to children’s reading. They do a huge amount to develop a society that properly values books. For example, he is giving every household in Sharjah a coffee table with 50 books in it – books chosen by the household, not imposed on them. There are many other things he’s done with the same aim of creating a book-loving citizenship.
As I said in my panel talk (Why is children’s literature important to society?) perhaps he could come out to the UK and teach our rulers a thing or three about the importance of finding and valuing reading for pleasure… He gives libraries; ours close them. Yep, interesting trip.
With, of course, time for reading. No one who lectures about stress should neglect her own need to relax.
Huge thanks to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival and Midas PR for making all this happen.