EAIFL Day 4: Of Food, Glasnosts, Trauma & India; a.k.a The Final Leg

Posted on March 18, 2010


I very grudgingly drove up to the festival venue on Saturday the 14th of March. It was the last day of the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature, and judging by the back-to-back sessions I had lined up for day, I had a sinking feeling this day was going to just whizz past.

Having said hello to the good folks at our bloggers/tweeters ‘lounge,’ I made my way to my first session of the day; the Foodie Panel represented by Anjum Anand, Suzanne Husseini and Mike Harrison. Now I haven’t been blessed with the skills of a basic cook let alone a culinary genius, so I feared this session was going to have more to do with the technical aspects of cookery than anything else. Much to my relief however, the 3 gurus of the culinary arts just sat back and talked cooking; from the thrill of the appreciation of a job well done, to the lack of interest of the TV/Ipod generation in what they eat.

Anjum Anand may as well be appointed the brand ambassador for Indian cuisine. She juggles her time between England and her native India, and emphasises her discourses with vivid gestures.”The way we eat now is more about convenience and not so much about taste. We should nourish our body with awareness, and make more of an effort to understand what we eat. All food will offer you something your body needs. Too much of something is what proves to be harmful.”

Suzanne Husseini represented the Middle Eastern sector of the gastronomy panel. In addition to a few anecdotes of her life as an Arab in Canada, this established cook vehemently backed the age old principle of using love as your main ingredient. “The first act of love a woman expresses to her baby is that she feeds it, so it’s only natural to want to reflect it in the kitchen. It’s a shame that nowadays we’re not eating enough together. Families who watch TV while they eat don’t even know what they’re consuming anymore; a sure fire guarantee of obesity.”

Mike Harrisson unlike his female counterparts, is more of a travel foodie than one who chooses to highlight the culinary sciences of his culture. Particularly fond of Arabian cuisine, Harrison’s travels tend to trace the food trails over the ages.” You can’t really compare one country’s cuisine as being better than the other. It’s funny how a particular food that seemingly originated from one country has in fact transcended boundaries over the years. “

The debate changed texture like a hot pot of caramelized sugar. The panel exchanged personal experiences in the cooking game as well as divulged in the art of experimentation in cooking. Needless to say, at the end of that mouth-watering hour I was starving, and although I was tempted to stay on for what seemed to be a few cookery demonstrations I had to rush. I’d just scored an interview with Alexander McCall Smith, and didn’t want to keep him waiting.

Once that was over and done with I made my way to the neighbouring Deira International School. And no I hadn’t flunked out of high school. The school had been kind enough to volunteer a few of their classrooms as extended premises for the Lit Fest to host its many workshops.

The one I was headed off to was a journalism workshop conducted by the legendary Max Easterman of the BBC. The cutesy backdrop of the children’s classroom provided a very paradoxical setting for a workshop titled Journalism & Trauma, but in no way hindered this very interactive tutorial.

Easterman ran us through some very moving clips (both audio and visual) of the world’s major natural as well as man-inflicted disasters, all the while training the potential journalists in the room in the art of reporting from severely troubling circumstances such as these. From having us differentiate between footage that can and cannot be aired for public viewing, to the biological response of the body to trauma, Easterman also prepared his eager pupils for the modus operandi applied when questioning traumatized witnesses and maintaining one’s own composure at the same time.

I left the room with new found appreciation for those purveyors of information having to report from the sidelines of war and natural disaster to the folks sitting cushy on their sofas back home. It’s no easy feat, having to work alongside forsaken victims and children of war. I for one don’t think I could handle it.

Back at the main festival venue, I entered what appeared to be a very controversial panel discussion. Entitled Saudi Arabia’s New Glasnost, I had a hunch this session was going to strike a few chords. Badriah Al Bishr, Turki Al Dakhil and Richard Spencer were on the discussion panel, and the discourse was moderated by Robert Lacey of Inside The Kingdom fame.

The term Glasnost was originally coined by Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union back in the second half of the 1980’s, and refers to a policy of maximal transparency, or ‘openness’, in the activities of all government institutions. It’s relevance to the session was that of its application in the Saudi Arabian regime.

All speakers were given their turn to voice their opinion on the subject, each expressing their view on the Saudi Arabian monarchy, the situation and opinions of the kingdom’s youth and finally the influence and effect of the media (social media, satellite television, etc.) on public perception.

Al Dhakil, a very prominent Saudi media personality, managed to very diplomatically chastise the current situation of the Kingdom yet praise its efforts at reform at the same time. He stated that ‘change is not easy’ and compared the current level of media freedoms to the restrictions of earlier regimes. “Back then, journalists could never talk about/publish anything to do with the country’s corruption, but today this has been proven possible. Take the flooding of Jeddah for instance.”

Al Bishr, an acclaimed journalist and novelist of Saudi Arabian origin was not afraid to stake claim to her beliefs. ”The #1 mistake we make in Saudi today, is considering reform to be a battle between conservatives and liberals,” she claimed before stressing on the need to reform the Kingdom’s approach to women. ”Dubai is a model that has been an embarrassment to other Gulf countries.”

Richard Spencer of the Daily Telegraph provided an outsider’s take on the topic by comparing the Saudi Arabian regime to that of the governance of China, managing to remain neutral in his opinion the entire time.

In the midst of this heavy a debate however, there was room for a few laughs, especially, from moderator Robert Lacey. “Everyone thinks that Saudis are miserable buggers without a sense of humour, but ‘Tash ma Tash’ proves otherwise.” laughed Lacey, referring to the country’s popular satirical TV show.

Although the panel members merely just skimmed the surface of the topic under discussion, judging from the nature of the questions from the very culturally diverse audience, there clearly was much more left to debate.

Al Dhakil however chose to make the closing statement: “We cannot live in an ideal city, and to expect that is being unrealistic. The current regime seems to be intent on some semblance of reform; we can only hope that in the passing on of power, the passing on of ideas also makes a smooth transaction.”

In Search of Modern India was my last session for the day, and lamentably for the entire festival as well. It was obvious from the packed hall that this was one of the more anticipated sessions, and with a panel comprising of Amit Chaudhuri, Shohba De, Vikas Swarup, Venu Rajamony and ‘honorary Indian’ William Darymple, it wasn’t hard to fathom why.

The session’s title itself was self-explanatory, and it was obvious that the discussion was to revolve around the sub-continent; its previous shortcomings, apparent successes, as well as the nation’s potential to grow even further both socially as well as economically.

While some of the panelists were more positive in their outlook “Today in the 21st century, there is a pride in being Indian” (Vikas Swarup), others were more diplomatic “We have adopted democracy because we believe in it, not because we believe it is the ultimate problem-solver”(Venu Rajamony). Some were more observant “Pakistan (to India) has become more of a Tomcat pissing on the doorstep than the Tiger in the living room” (Will Darymple), others witty “The best way to compare pre and post-liberalism in India is the public’s perception of Fair & Lovely”, and some downright critical “Why the obsession with using China as a benchmark to measure India? Why not look forward instead of comparing with a nation that just serves to make us feel better about the current situation?

As was expected however, there was no concrete conclusion concurred upon. But the session did deliver by providing a platform for both fiery debate as well as light hearted banter.

And just like that the Lit Fest came to an end. From what I could gather in the form of attendee as well as author feedback, this 4 day congregation of the literati was clearly a success. The various activities at The Fringe festival kept visitors both young and old entertained in between sessions, and the sheer variety of sessions had a little something to suit everyone.

The authors though celebrities in their own right, were very obliging and approachable, and the layout of the venue provided for easy access to all sectors of the event. All in all, a fruitful venture and another milestone for Dubai.

Before I wrap up though, I’d like to give big shout out to all the bloggers, photographers and volunteers who worked relentlessly throughout the fest, and purely pro bono at that. @HishamWyne, @Ammouni and @MoneyMunot for the fantastic blogging reportage of the event, @shru, @FaisalKhatib, @jarofjuice and @WajihaSaid for capturing the spirit of the fest through their gorgeous snapshots, @Lhjunkie for being such a hands-on volunteer, @highandwild for having coordinated everything and making sure we were sorted the entire time, and of course to @rupertbu for being the Big Daddy behind the bloggers desk and the main PR machine for our humble lit fete.

It was most definitely a team effort, and the fact that we had such a fantastic bunch to work with in the first place made our jobs so much easier.

So three cheers, a big Mexican wave and massive Thank You for everyone who made it this year. And for those of you who didn’t, you know not to make the same mistake twice. Over and out from the Lit Fest 2010. See you folks next year.