Profile: Isobel Abulhoul and the written word


Isobel Abulhoul stepped out of a BOAC plane one evening and inhaled deeply.

“The air smelled warm, and spicy and twinkly and desert-y,” she recalls. Dubai was then truly a desert. The next morning, when she looked out of the window, she saw a donkey trotting by, there was the sea and there weren’t any roads.

“It was just like out of a storybook,” she says. A year later, she was married to her love, Abdullah Abulhoul and has lived in Dubai ever since. That was in 1968.

A lesser woman would have quailed at the enormity of change confronting her—but not Mrs. Abulhoul. She admits to being adventurous and says it’s important to be committed. Once she decides to do something, she stays with it and works around whatever obstacles come her way. Ever the optimist, she says she had no fears at all about her new life. Everybody was warm and very welcoming. And she tried very hard to communicate with the six words of Arabic she knew. She now speaks the language fluently, a rarity among expatriates.

What did she miss the most about her native Cambridge? Her mother, her mother’s cooking, libraries, bookshops and newspapers.

After 40-odd years of living in Dubai she calls herself an “Honorary Emirati.” But there is something quintessentially old-world English about Mrs. Abulhoul, and I think that is her pioneering spirit. For her spirit alone, I’m sure she would’ve been greatly valued in Queen Victoria’s court had she been born during that time.

Mrs. Abulhoul stands out of a crowd and not just because of her height. “I’ve always loved being tall,” she says. “And being left handed in a right handed world. And being a foreigner in the Dubai back in the 70’s. I was a novelty and I enjoyed all the attention. I’ve always loved being different.”

When you actually consider what this woman has achieved and how she has lived her life, she comes across not only as tall but larger than life.

Episode One: Mrs. Abulhoul began her career in Dubai as a nursery school teacher. But once she had children, she decided to start a school herself. And that was because she wanted her children to have a certain kind of an education—not strictly British and not entirely Arabic but an education that combined the best of both worlds. She and her husband co-founded Al Ittihad School, which was a charitable institution and accepted students from all nationalities. According to her, Al Ittihad School was way ahead of its time: there used to be two teachers to a class, one to teach the subject in English and the other in Arabic.

Episode Two: The unstoppable Mrs. Abulhoul starts Magrudy’s in 1975. It was a shop that sold educational toys. It was a toyshop that also stocked children’s books—an entirely new business model in those days. I ask her what motivated her to open a toyshop. She answers casually: “There just weren’t any nice toys to be found in Dubai then and I wanted educational toys for my children.” If this is not a Tiger Mother, who is? One who makes her child play the piano for six hours? Move over, Amy Chua.

All that is water under the bridge: Magrudy’s is now an establishment. And I mean, “An Establishment.” It is present in all the top malls of Dubai, there’s one in Abu Dhabi and several across campuses. And children who once shopped there now shop there with their children. How’s that for brand loyalty?

You may well say, O. K., it’s a business. But that is not what it is to Mrs. Abulhoul.

“Magrudy’s”, she says, “is my child.” A child that has been raised with the greatest love and affection. A child that has what she loves above all. Books.

Her love of books began when she was a child, as it usually does when there is a habit of reading in the home. What delights her most is that her love has turned into her career.

It goes without saying that she reads a great deal. It’s mostly fiction but literary fiction. She says she likes fiction with “heft” in it—that is, fiction with insights and books that deal with issues.

Her top favorite book is “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway, which she reads at least once a year. Other favorites are: “1984” by George Orwell, “The Road” by Cormack McCarthy, “Room” by Emma Donahue , and “The Other Hand” by Chris Cleeve. “A good book,” she says, “never finishes—it leaves you with questions.”

Episode Three: The indomitable Mrs. Abulhoul starts a literary festival. Where does she get this energy? To conceive and execute a Festival of Literature for the region would require, I assume, a reservoir of energy, commitment and sheer doggedness.

“I get my energy from ideas. I find the thought of an idea becoming a reality very exciting,” she says, her eyes twinkling. The Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is now in its fourth year and has become a phenomenon. Among the authors that attended this year were winners of the Nobel, the Caine, the International Prize for Arabic fiction, the Man Booker, Orange and Costa. It was a dazzling congregation.

The Festival plays special attention to children and has a strong theme for children. Mrs. Abulhoul says, “Children are what matter, they are the future.” There is also a huge emphasis on Arabic literature because, she says, it is critical that “Arab voices be heard.”

“We are a part of society and we all have a responsibility toward it. You can’t ignore the need to help society. It is a debt. You have to make things better for others.” I get goose bumps listening to her.

Is there anything that’s beyond her? She bakes her own bread, grows her own fruit and vegetables (yes, in Dubai) and keeps chickens. She has five children—all of whom she has raised herself and not delegated to other people, all of whom have excelled academically. There’s a banker, a doctor, a dentist and a vet, and a designer in the making. Her children, she says, are her greatest triumph.

Isobel Abulhoul loves Dubai. She says she couldn’t live anywhere else. She remembers the time when you could go to the souks to buy fruit and vegetables. “There used to be a butcher on Jumeirah Beach Road called Pete the Meat and he was excellent,” she says. “And soon there was a fish shop called ‘Trish the Fish.’” And we laugh. Really, really laugh.

She loves what Dubai has become. She loves the diversity of the population and the energy and the pulse of the city.

If she were to revisit her life, would she change anything?

“In hindsight, we could all be cleverer and wiser. Every step of my journey has led me to another place in my life. I wouldn’t change that,” she says.

The shadows have lengthened. I take my leave. She gives me a kiss. I feel like saluting her.

(Umita Raghu Venkataraman, a writer at Al Arabiya can be reached at: [email protected])