The theme of the 15th Emirates Literary Festival, which we attended a couple of weeks ago, was ‘Old Friends’. It was, of course, great to be back and to meet up with some of the authors we have got to know over the years but they are only friends in the very broadest meaning of the word. I have spent the past five or so years writing various memoirs and while doing so I have thought much about friendship, a word which the English use to encompass a wide range of relationships. In Denmark where I lived for two years a definite distinction is made between ven, friend, and bekendt, acquaintance and I think the correct use of the two words enhances the value of true friendships. Like most people I have many acquaintances and a few close friends. My friendships fall into three distinct groups: those from my school days, those from East Africa and those made since my first marriage ended. I am bound to the first group by the shared experiences of childhood and little else; to the second by the excitement of our lives as young adults in Africa, memories almost as vivid now as the day they were made; and to the third, most of whom are a generation younger than me, by the common purpose of giving back to life. Perhaps I should add a fourth group, my grandchildren, who I am now getting to know as young adults: those are very special friendships, family relationships not freighted with any sense of duty or responsibility.
It was, of course, good to be back in Dubai, to be reunited briefly with many of the team who created the Dubai Litfest, the idea of which was met with incredulity by most people when Isobel Abulhoul and I dreamt it up over coffee back in 2007: ‘A literary festival? In Dubai? You must be kidding!’ Now of course it is an established part of the international festival circuit and has enabled residents of the Gulf to meet many hundreds of authors, local and international, and, perhaps more important, opened the eyes of some of those authors to the rich culture of the Arab world.
My own memories of Dubai go back to my first visit in 1978 when it was a small town with 200,000 inhabitants, centred around a deep creek from which its trading dhows sailed to India, Pakistan and the coast of Africa. 45 years later, with Dubai’s population now exceeding 5m, I refreshed some of those old memories by escaping the glitz of the modern city and wandering around the spice souq to replenish my stock of dried lemons and saffron; the bustle of the adjacent Creekside wharfs seemed little changed.
From Dubai we travelled on to Kenya for a week of relaxation at the coast. Following the death, just after Christmas, of a very dear and close friend we needed, as my wife Vivienne put it, to ‘reset’ and for us there is nowhere better to do that than in a beachfront thatched cottage looking out over the Indian Ocean.
We had a few hours between flights in Nairobi and took the opportunity of meeting up with Jane Njeri, the young lady whose education we have funded since she was a small child, now part-way through her university degree course in mechanical engineering, and her aunt Faith who has raised her since her father was killed 20 years ago. I have known Jane’s grandmother Jeannie for 55 years and even though we come from completely different backgrounds I count her among my close friends. She looked after my two older daughters when they were babies, she has sought my advice when the pressures of her tribal society clashed with the values she was picking up from us, I introduced her to her husband Samuel, my daughters being bridesmaids at their wedding, she has visited me in England and she is someone who for many reasons I admire and respect.
We flew on to Mombasa and went from there by road and ferry south to Diani. I recalled making that journey for the first time in 1968, having driven my VW Beetle the 300 miles from Nairobi with my parents-in-law, my then-wife Bente heavily pregnant with our second child and our little two and a half year old daughter Marina squashed between her mother and grandmother. We stopped at a supermarket in Mombasa to get supplies for the self-catering cottage which was to be our home for a week, took the Likoni ferry, nowhere near as crowded as it now is, drove through miles of coconut plantations and finally reached our destination, Mrs. May’s Cottages, where I first fell in love with the Indian Ocean. I recall standing at the top of the beach, looking out at the waves breaking on the reef and thinking that, if I were to travel east-south-east, the first land I would encounter would be the coast of Western Australia 5000 miles away. All those years ago the coast was largely undeveloped; now it is unrecognisable, but the majestic ocean is unchanged and just occasionally I could summon up memories of the whispering palms and the empty beaches, of my beloved father-in-law beginning to share my love of Africa and my little daughter’s delight in it all. Treasured memories.