Feb 2019: Dubai Literary Festival

An invitation to the Dubai Literary Festival marked Tokotoko’s first foray into the Middle East — we only managed to get detained once!

We had been scheduled for several events: a live interview with the National Broadcaster; a sole session as the New Zealand Poet Laureate; and as a guest poet for the famous Desert Stanzas event. Tokotoko and I rode our first camel, took in our first desert sunset, and shared our story:

Selina and Tusitala Kapura riding a camel.

Tusitala Kapura and desert sunset.

At the book signing afterwards, I was still AMAZED at how the poem ‘Fast Talking PI’ travels across cultures, countries, and continents.

Tusitala Kapura, a friend and Selina.

Tusitala Kapura, another friend and Selina.

Tokotoko and I trekked up the iconic Burj Khalifa. 

Tusitala Kapura and Burj Khalifa. 
The writers in our tower tour were gambling on whether me and Tokotoko would get through Security.  

James Owen, head of the charity organisation WIJABA (The World Is Just ABook Away ) and author of the book of the same title, explained to Security that Tokotoko was a ‘walking stick’ and elbowed me to limp my walk past metal and bomb detectors — much to the incredulity of my fellow writers.

After a nail-biting 35 seconds from the first to the 145th floor, we walked around the observation deck to survey Dubai — incredible to think that a mere 15 years ago, very few of the massive khaki lego-block city were in place. The money, the man and women power, required to build these structures from the desert floor up was mind-boggling!

Tusitala Kapura and tower tour group at top of Burj Khalifa.

Of course, the best thing about Dubai wasn’t just the incredibly eclectic, often logic-defeating architecture, or the endless flow of 5 star international cuisine, or the stunning hospitality (from flying Emirates Business Class, sponsors of the event, to the provision of free tours) or the fact that I didn’t spend one dollar while away, but the 5 star writers with whom we connected.  Here are some of us, on top of the Burj Khalifa.  Riz Khan lower left.

Tokotoko and I are inundated with photo requests from top-o-the-tower tourists. We happily oblige. The last extended Indian family insist that their great grandfather pose with us.  We are held up and lose track of the other writers.  While trying to exit through the gift shop, a man asks to see, then asks to photograph, then asks to hold the Tokotoko — which turns out to be the local lingo for ‘detain’. 

While calling his superiors, he refuses to let go his grip of Tokotoko.  I wasn’t letting go either.  Stalemate.  I could see the headlines: NZ Poet Laureate Trapped in Tower! Then James and Rhiz Khan wander out of the gift store, laden with mini tower magnets, assesses the situation, and start laughing at my impending imprisonment.

Maybe compared to all the global conflicts Riz — BBC’s first ‘Asian’ correspondent and co-founder of Al Jezeera — has witnessed and reported on, this is a littley.  But for me,  the thought of
 a) Tokotoko being detained;
 b) and me with it, was no laughing matter.

 As soon as Rhiz mentions whose guests we were — Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, ruler of the Emirate of Dubai sponsors the festival, and also a poet, '40 Poems From the Desert', — we were politely given our own elevator for an expeditious exit.

‘Look at the long queues we’ve managed to cut!’ giggles James.
‘Now this is service! It reminds me of that limerick, there once was a ...’ begins Riz

 I nearly knock their heads together with the tokotoko.  

Riz holds up his phone to take yet another photo.  ‘One more shot Selina - pretend you’re going to prison!’ 

Tusitala Kupara, James Owen, Selina.  
Me and Tokotoko and the lovely James Owen, who shares a birthday with Jane Goodall (he later sent me a film of both of them blowing out their candles).  Jane was one of his interviewees in The World Is Just A Book Away.  We’ll be doing a podcast together in the near future.

Both James and Riz adore Tokotoko — the  tales of poetic worldviews and travel; of being touched by people and in turn, being touched. Riz reaches out during those dark days after the Christchurch terrorist attack.  I reach back with a poem.

Christchurch Mosque Shootings

Poet, how are you to write?
How are you, on our darkest day
To find and offer light?

I’m texting with Riz
Who offers
Offers love and peace
An emoji of praying hands
For our Muslim brothers
And sisters lost
In mosques
In Christchurch.

Riz mirrors
The horror of an open
Mouthed world weeping
For Masjid Al Noor
For Linwood Masjid

Poet, it must be of a Big Love
Aroha Nui

A Strong Love
Aroha Toa

Of which you must write.

A big, strong, call to arms

Of love

Its relentless embrace
Surrounding us from
All parts
All places
In this world.

We are 200 ethnicities here
We are 600 languages here
We remain so.

For if my evangelistic In-Law
Finally walks through
The dark and dusty village
Of her beliefs about ‘muslims’

Finally sees herself
Kneeling in a mosque
Head scarved
Hands steepled in prayer
Sees her own bowed body
Bloody in worship
Sees the same spirit
Shafting through the air

Then there’s the light, Poet,
There’s the light.

Riz sends me pics
From Windsor
He’s wearing his Al Jeezera sweatshirt
He was the BBC’s first ‘Asian’ Correspondent
He’s warming up in
A dawning sun inhaling fog’s breath before
The Long Walk.

Through Riz’s eyes I hear how the rest of the world held its breath as they watched Jacinda carve out a new space in global leadership — one filled with authentic care, compassion and action. The Burj Khalifa we’d been up only the week before, its 180 stories a canvas for spectacular light shows, was now lit up with an image of our own Jacinda wearing a hijab. 

I’d only spent a week in Dubai, the younger, more liberal sibling of the more conservative Abu Dhabi, but two words kept spinning round my head the whole time: opulence and surveillance. 

After discovering I couldn’t make any video or phone calls through FaceBook, Facetime, Watsapp, or Skype, I felt claustrophobic. Although I could still text, if I wanted to hear or see my family or friends I had to go through the one national owned telecommunications company.  Beyond the luxury of the hotel, I felt too self conscious to run — despite the availability of running maps for tourists.  

I only saw one other woman jogger and she was covered head to foot and running in the heat.  I’d only brought my usual running tights and t-shirt.  If it’s possible to feel actively watched and ignored at the same time, then that’s how I felt. 

So, for Dubai to project a 180 story high image of an unmarried, non-Muslim, woman — only the second global leader to give birth while in office — well, there lie the real stories.
And because we all know how important our festival Volunteers are…

Tusitala Kapura, Selina and Dubai Literary Festival volunteers.