The Sharjah International Book Fair was opened yesterday with a huge, sit-down brunch launch ceremony featuring festival patron His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed al Qassimi – that’s the Sultan of Sharjah, to you and me.
Although most of the speeches were in Arabic there were live interpreters translating into English and French, and it was awesome looking around and seeing half the attendees with big headphones on their ears listening to alternate versions. Personally, I felt like I was in the UN. It was pretty cool. (Even cooler is that the live translations are going to happen at all the events!)
The show was really stolen by the Sultan, who gave a rousing speech about how Arabic culture is suffering and how Arabic people need to be interested in creating culture, and claim their culture, and make their culture globally relevant again. It’s so hard to tell how much the audience is thrilled by a speech and how much they clap their ruler out of politeness, but there was a real buzz about his words right throughout the day so I think they made an impact.
The Sultan is a really interesting figure as he’s a writer and art collector and incredibly interested in culture. Sharjah itself is a cultural centre, with many museums and galleries, and the Sultan supports most of them. He really seems engaged with the Sharjah International Book Festival, and also very present are the Sharjah Department of Culture and Information, who are my hosts while I’m here.
It is the 29th Book Fair and it’s a pretty massive event! It takes up a whole exhibition centre, and features 789 publishing houses from over 50 countries, including 120 local and 290 Arabic. There are over 200,000 book titles on display. Fark, eh? It’s gonna take me a long time to walk through all those books… but I’m looking forward to the challenge!
The ‘intellectual component’ of the festival, the more literary festival type events, has over 200 events, and includes a massive cooking demonstration program (oooooh, yeah!) and a children’s programming stream, of which Arabic kids’ literature is a particular focus. Ebooks are also present, though in quite a small way, and there is a Literary Cafe.
The highlight of the launch was when the Sultan’s new book (in English!) was launched. The book itself, published by Bloomsbury, covers the Sultan’s early year and looks quite interesting. The best bit, however, was the official signing of the first copy. First, the sign on the stage rolled back to reveal… a big table stacked with a few copies of the book, behind which was a huge white leather arm chair. The signing throne then rolled forward on mechanical rollers and the Sultan took his seat and signed the books with a flourish. Needless to say, the audience were not invited onstage to chat with the distinguished author. Unfortunately I did not get a photo of the signing throne but have made a mental note to order one next time I launch a book.
The slogan of the festival is For Love of the Written Word, a rather lovely sentiment. I’m looking forward to indulging my love over the coming days!