Postcard from Sharjah #scrf17 #discoverbeyond

Its been a funny old month.  After the madness of March I found myself writing a short story for Kent Wildlife Trust and presenting it at their Paint the Town Green celebration event.  The next thing I knew I was telling folk tales in a 15th Century Guildhall as part of the Get Creative Weekend.  A couple of days later and I visited Norwich’s state of the art Theatre Royal to do The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! before travelling to Sharjah in The United Arab Emirates to take part in their Children’s Reading Festival.

The whole thing came about just after Verity was born.  I opened my inbox and there it was; an invitation to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates (although I’ll confess to never having heard of the place).  Nine weeks and a seven and half hour flight later I enter Dubai’s airport – gateway to the Gulf and beyond – shining out in marble and chrome (and that’s just the baggage hall!).  From there we were whisked off to Sharjah’s Hilton Hotel and as I’m sat in the lobby staring up at a crystal chandelier I am still pinching myself – is this all a dream?  Then I step outside the lobby into temperatures of 31-36oC – no, this is really happening.

The following was written after each day but is published as one blog.

Day One

The first thing to note is the calibre of the other people I am staying with in the hotel.  Breakfast is with Sheena Dempsey and Swapna Haddow who when I ask about their work slide Dave Pigeon across the table.  I have a flick through and am instantly grabbed by the presentation of the book – it just looks fun.

Arriving at the Expo Center I am met by a security cordon.  There’s royalty attending the opening of the festival and the organisers aren’t taking any chances.  Today I’m telling Roald Dahl’s “The Twits” and the look on the security guards face as he opens my suitcase is priceless (for a moment I think Mrs Twit’s walking stick is about to be confiscated).

The Expo Center is vast and I am immediately lost.  There seem to be an unending array of events, activities and people preparing for their day.  The children’s area is made to look like a little village with lots of shops, a library and a police station.  I am working in shop 2 (Knowledge) along with Beth Creagan and Mark Greenwood who are attending the festival from Australia.  They both make me feel very welcome in my home for the day and I am able to attend bits of their workshops (Beth does a fantastic string storytelling activity which I’ll be stealing in the future).

My workshops, morning and afternoon, were well received but it is all a steep learning curve here in Sharjah.  I am always pretty dynamic when I tell stories but in front of a largely arabic speaking audience I have to become even more demonstrative and am already wondering how my proposed Shakespeare session will go down on Friday night.

The day ends as it began – at my laptop in my air conditioned hotel room after a lovely dinner with author Tamsyn Murray and illustrator Sara Mellin (the brains behind The Pound Shop).  It may only be day one but there is a nice atmosphere being developed amongst the workshop facilitators.  Tomorrow the Mad Hatter comes to the Emirates…

Day Two

I open my curtains to another day of sun but the superb mosque on the other side of the lagoon reminds me this isn’t La La Land.

Its an earlier start for day two at the Expo Center.  Today I am in Shop 5 (Ideas).  Its further away from the main exhibition space which means its a bit quieter.  Not that that matters because today I’m doing The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party!  Rather than wait in my room for the audience to be brought in, I follow the usher into the hall and lead my audience in a conga line back to our space.  The first presentation is manic; the children are young and have only a little English so when I start climbing on tables to spray them with water they are beside themselves (although I’m not sure the teachers appreciate the early shower!).  It’s funny but for a hot country people don’t like to get wet.

Once I’m finished I flit between workshops helping out where I can (drawing with children who have learning difficulties and pretending to be a rabbit in a book workshop).  I do this because the other workshop leaders have been at my session to support me, joining in so that the children have somebody to copy.  It seems like a really simple thing but its tough work when your audience/participants don’t really understand what’s going on.  The support of the other facilitators is invaluable to the success of the sessions.

By 11am (that’s 8am in the UK) I am on my way back to the hotel and half my day is done.

After a dip in the pool and exchanging messages with home (I miss Lauren and VB and am looking forward to seeing them in a few days time) I’m back in the Expo Center.  My afternoon time slot is quite close to prayer time so numbers in the hall are thin but with my colourful jacket and another game of Follow my Leader I am soon the Pied Piper leading the children toward my session.  Over the next 30 minutes lots of children and families brave the water and stick their heads in on what I’m doing.  It seems that The Mad Hatter is visual enough and interactive to hit the right notes for this event.  With this in mind and with concerns about my Shakespeare presentation I take the decision to host a tea party again tomorrow evening!

When I finish my session I go out into the Expo to look at what other people are doing.  There are flight simulators, Lego building, book and toy stores, jugglers, acrobats, marching bands and much much more – you couldn’t possibly see it all.

Generally speaking today was a better day than yesterday; I feel much more comfortable in the environment and have a better understanding of what I have to do to be successful at what is a very vibrant, interactive event.  I am only scheduled to do three more presentations so fingers crossed I can put my knowledge into practice when I return tomorrow evening but first a trip to Dubai.

Day Three

Friday is prayer day in Sharjah which means the festival opens at 4pm giving us enough time to visit Dubai.  The hotel shuttle bus drops us near the metro from where we go to the Dubai Mall to see the Burj Khalifa (the tallest building in the world).  From the viewing levels you can see that Dubai has just about every type of tall building ever imagined and that the growing city is surrounded by sand.  Its a bit mind boggling to consider what man has achieved in a very short space of time and in such harsh landscape.

Day three represents the halfway point in my trip.  I still can’t believe that this is really happening and I count myself very lucky to have this opportunity to be a part of what is a tremendously prestigious event.  I remember being asked to participate in Shrewsbury Children’s Bookfest and then the CityRead 2014.  At the time these were big, big deals for me after years of hard work but being in Sharjah this week is incredible.  The facilities are amazing but its the people who make it.  The people here are really friendly and couldn’t do enough to help you.  Often what they lack in the way of English comprehension they make up for in sheer enthusiasm for life.  The other facilitators too, are very supportive and ultra talented.  I’m rubbing shoulders with some very inspiring people.

I think that I’m relaxing into a routine of workshops and 5 star hotel life but I can’t wait to see Lauren and VB on Saturday.  I had a dig in my bag and found one of VBz rattles and a book of nursery rhymes (*sigh*).

then came Friday night…

Please remember I am writing all this in real time.  It’s 10.15pm local time and I am euphoric – you could say I’m as high as a kite sailing from the top of the tallest building in the world!  Its the weekend in Sharjah and tonight the Expo Center was crawling with children and families.  Tonight was the reason I agreed to come to the Gulf, tonight justified leaving my family and flying half way around the world, tonight was the reason I do my job, tonight was f**pping amazing!

Let me try to describe how it went down; this was a perfect storm of an adrenline pumped storyteller, lots of excitable children, water and anarchy.  We ran and danced and conga lined through the festival; we caused chaos and they loved it.  At one stage in my presentation they were three deep at the door, with faces pressed up against the windows and when we finished it took 10 minutes for the families to get all the photos they wanted with me.  The children loved taking part and it really felt like we provided something that was genuinely fun that will inspire the learning of English.  In short a job well done.  I hope that tomorrow, my final day in Sharjah, will be just as memorable.

Day Four

Saturday morning.  My final day in Sharjah.  Last night I slept with the curtains open and was woken by the sunrise.  It was a bit misty but still rather lovely.

My penultimate presentation done I’d like to mention the drivers, volunteers, security, cameramen and cleaners who really make this festival tick.  They have always been so friendly and supportive and its from them that I have learned about the UAE (for instance did you know that water is more expensive than petrol out here?).  The room ushers have done a particularly wonderful job in helping to muster audiences and set up rooms.  I will miss them a lot when I am gone.

It’s now after midnight.  My final presentation went well and I have waved farewell to the expo center for the final time.  In some ways its a case of just about getting the ropes then having to leave.  I know its for the best though, in 25 hours time I’ll be back in blighty with Lauren and VB and this evening just showing somebody a picture of VBz almost had me in tears.  Saying this hindsight is an amazing thing; if I knew before all that I know now eh?  On Monday I’ll be with Merton Libraries telling Shakespeare’s tales and all this will seem even more bizarre and dream like than it does to have lived it.

The ladies at the expo gave me a little parting gift (a model camel) and Katrina Germein kindly gave VB one of her books.  Sara, Tamsyn and me went to the waterfront for a Lebanese meal before walking back around the lagoon.  I have said my goodbyes to the Aussies who are flying home early tomorrow and its almost time for me to think about packing my bags.

All things considered it been a positive week.  I have done what I came here for and leave satisfied.  At times it has been tough but there have been real highs and I’ve met some fantastic people who I hope I can keep in touch with for the future.  Will I be back in the Gulf anytime soon?  Well as they say in this neck of the woods, enshallah!!