Hay Festival organisers were last night pondering how to get festival-goers dancing to French DJ Ravin, who was blending electronic fusion with distinctly local bodu-beru rhythms for an appreciative crowd shuffling around the outskirts of the dance floor.
“Ask MNBC to stop broadcasting live,” suggested a nearby young Maldivian.
It was like flicking a switch. Almost immediately a horde of youngsters formed a mosh pit and raved for three solid hours in what was no doubt one of the most energetic parties ever seen on the presidential retreat of Aarah.
As they hooted and cheered his name, Ravin could be seen on stage shaking his head with amazement at what was probably one of the DJ’s most enthusiastic audiences.
Ravin’s set was the finale of two days of literary and cultural events – the Maldives’ first major literature festival – with authors and artists international and local discussing their work and craft. The attendance and involvement of young people was particularly noticeable, as were the many families relaxing and playing in the sunshine.
Reassuringly for the authors, the on-site bookshop did a roaring trade with queues for book signings. Jung Chang’s Wild Swans and Ian McEwan’s Solar were particularly popular, and young Maldivians were observed tottering around Aarah underneath huge stacks of tomes freshly-purchased and those brought from home to be signed. Judging the look of exhaustion on McEwan’s face in the green room after his signing session, every McEwan novel in the country now has a signature.
Despite a slow beginning – less than 10 tickets were sold on the first day they went on sale – huge last minute demand forced organisers to issue 200 more tickets for both days. Such was the last minute demand that a brisk black market trade sprang up, with tickets purchased for Rf100 being sold at the Aarah ferry queue for up to Rf300.
Climate change was a distinctive theme of the event. Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam announced that the Maldives has applied to UNESCO to declare the entirety of Baa Atoll a protected biosphere reserve, while the President’s advisor on climate change Mark Lynas spoke on the challenges facing the government’s 10 year road to carbon neutrality.
Monty Don, President of the UK-based Soil Association and an early proponent of organic food, spoke of the need for populations to source their food locally, while award-winning foreign correspondent Peter Godwin spoke of the political and social decline of his homeland Zimbabwe at the hands of Robert Mugabe.
Jung Chang, author of the internationally acclaimed novel Wild Swans and autobiography Mao: The Untold Story, spoke about her experiences growing up amid the cultural revolution, joining Mao’s Red Guard, and her growing understanding of his brutality.
Ian McEwan finished the lineup, introducing his climate change satire Solar about a Nobel prize-winning and climate scientist and womaniser who discovers how to cheaply extract hydrogen from water using photosynthesis.
Hay Festival Project Director Andy Fryers said he was delighted at the reception to the sell-out festival, “particularly the exuberance of the crowd once they realised what Hay was about.”
“One of the speakers said it was fantastic that there was such a youthful and questioning audience. People were really engaged,” Fryers said.
A key challenge of the festival was introducing the concept of a lecture – sitting and listening to a speaker and then opening the session up a debate – which was a new idea for the Maldives, Fryers said, if one that was eagerly embraced.
Other challenges included ensuring that a wide-range of people were brought on board, and that the event was “inclusive, not exclusive.”
“It was amazing to see 60-70 young volunteers appear virtually out of the ground and put in hours of their own time to make it happen,” he added.
The Hay organisers have begun talking about ideas for a possible repeat of the festival next year.
“We always say we try to give a new destination three years, unless something catastrophic happens, to capitalise on all the hard work of the first year,” Fryers said. “We’ve already started talking about how to take the idea forward in the Maldives.”