Teaching Writing in Dubai

Earlier this month, I traveled to Dubai to teach a Novel-Writing boot camp at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature. It was a miraculous experience–meeting people I never would have met, hearing stories I never would have heard. Going to a poetry reading in the desert. Riding around on a dune buggy in the desert with my daughter. (She drove, I hung on.)

Entry way to the festival.

It was hard to know how to prepare for the class because I didn’t know what the writers would be like. I assumed they would be writing about different topics than my regular students (though actually, having taught in NYC for so long, I have heard close to everything.) But I worried: Would I be able to connect? Would they have different expectations of what novel should be? Would we be able to talk to each other at all?

It turned out, possibly not surprisingly, that writers are pretty much the same the world over: passionate, anxious, opinionated, quarrelsome, eager to be heard.

Some moments from Dubai that linger:

A heated discussion that sprung up over a story one of the men wrote about a young woman who planned to climb a mountain and then settle down into marriage. She was sixteen. Why does she have to get married? several of the women called out. His answer: Because things can only change so fast. At least she’s climbing the mountain. Then more back and forth: Why? Why? Why? (Isn’t that one of the primary jobs of a writer: to ask why?)

Hard at work!

Yet another heated discussion. This one about a book we were discussing by the Kuwaiti writer, Mai Al-Nakib. An Unlasting Home is the story of a philosophy professor in Kuwait, who, on page 5, is arrested for blasphemy and finds herself under threat of execution. We discussed that opening chapter line by line, grappling over whether it constituted trauma porn or a true depiction of life in the Middle East.

So many lectures and panels: Some of my favorites: Hearing publishing phenomenon Rebecca Yarros discuss her journey to literary stardom, Nizar Habash speak On Teaching Robots Arabic. Artist Fatma Lootah and writer Patrick Bringley (All the Beauty in the World) discussing connections between beauty and art. Booker Prize-winning author Ben Okri discussing Tiger Work, (and hearing his daughter read a poem in the desert.) Gotham President Alex Steele, lecturing on The Mind of a Writer (likely to be a new Gotham class).

Yet another heated discussion: This one about olives and the assertion that it is impossible to get a good olive in the United States. Who knew?

The lights of Dubai. I am a person who loves sparkly things and Dubai glitters.

The newness of Dubai: It’s disconcerting to go to the historical district of Dubai and find that it dates back only to the 1950s. (I’ve come to grips with getting older, but have never before thought of myself as historic.) If you owned land in Dubai in the 1950s, you would be a millionaire now, many times over, And I don’t mean a lot of land. In the space of about 25 years it went from being a dusty little town to a cosmopolitan hub. Everywhere you look, you see construction cranes.

The desert: Desert sand is different than Jones Beach sand. It’s so fine and it blows all over you and it doesn’t sting your eyes. My favorite moment came when my daughter took us tearing across the dunes. And when I watched her go sand boarding. Some moments are truly bucket list moments and I will treasure them.

Have you ever been to Dubai? What are your thoughts?


  1. What a fabulous opportunity and adventure, Susan. It sounds like you squeezed every ounce of enjoyment out of it. I have never been to Dubai and it isn’t on my bucket list but if I had the opportunity you did, I’d jump on the plane in a heartbeat. Were there any interesting trees there?

    1. It was incredible. Even while I was there I kept thinking to myself, I can’t believe I’m here. A big topic of conversation was whether Dubai has the capacity to become the publishing hub for the MidEast and whether writers from that region should be writing for each other or for the West.

  2. I love that the world is such a big place. Thanks for the photos. I’m so happy for you.
    Will you use it for a setting in a new ms?

  3. Sounds wonderful. The clothing you and your daughter are wearing in the pictures is normal American wear. I was under the impression that women are required to cover arms, heads, and no pants. Is there a dress code?

    1. In the instructions before the conference, they said it would be polite to not show our knees. But that was pretty much it. However, about a third of the women I saw who were from Dubai wore hajibs.

  4. I have never been but one of my writing group taught for 2 yrs there and was forever changed by it.
    How wonderful you could share this with your daughter, too!

    The discussions sounded intense and eye-opening, too. What a terrific experience!

    On another note: what is different about Dubai olives??

  5. My husband and I visited Dubai in 2016. We really enjoyed the old section and museums there and found it more interesting than the newer section.

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