Rebecca and I just got home Sunday night, after 23 hours in transit, from Dubai via Frankfurt then Denver.
We were invited to be guest authors at the Sharjah Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates, a trade show that is also open to the public; they reported 600,000 attendees last year. We were the only American novelists to appear there in at least two years. And it came about because of Terra Incognita.
At the Book Expo in New York last May, our friend Claude Sandoz (whom we know from theWriters of the Future Contest) introduced us to Ahmed al-Amri, the director of the Sharjah Fair. In addition to running one of the largest book fairs in the Arab world, Ahmed is also a fan of SF and Fantasy, and even attended the San Diego Comic Con; he had read some of my novels, and I gave him a signed copy of The Edge of the World as well as a copy of The Map of All Things for his boss, the ruler of the emirate of Sharjah (one of seven city-states in the United Arab Emirates).
A month ago, I received a letter, “His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the United Arab Emirates Supreme Council, Ruler of Sharjah, officially invites you to attend the Sharjah Book Fair as a guest of honor.” A very pleasant surprise.
They arranged our travel, business-class seats on Lufthansa from Denver to Frankfurt and then to Dubai, and promised that our hotel and transportation would be taken care of; they also suggested we bring some of our books to display at a booth in the fair. We didn’t know many details other than that when we boarded the plane, not even the name of the hotel, just the reassurance that everything would be fine. It was unnerving to go so far with so little information, but when we arrived (after 18 hours of travel) a representative was waiting for us directly at the door, so we saw her as soon as we stepped off the plane. She summoned a transport cart and took us through the immense Dubai airport, opened up a separate passport and customs line to whisk us through, then handed us off to Mr. Abdul from the Sharjah Book Fair, who presented Rebecca with a bouquet of roses; the petals were printed with a message in English and Arabic, “Welcome to the Sharjah Book Fair.”
Mr. Abdul and a driver attempted to fit our luggage into the small car (not possible), before deciding to send a second car after us with the rest of the suitcases. Before we got into the car, Mr. Abdul handed me his cell phone, “It’s for you, Mr. Kevin.” It was the cultural minister of Sharjah calling to welcome us, asking if we’d had a good trip. (I’m not used to getting phone calls like that.) The driver then took us off into the brightly lit streets of Dubai, heading to Sharjah. We had no idea where the other car had gone with our luggage.
After twenty minutes we arrived at our hotel—marble floors, spiral staircase, lavish appointments—and two others from the Book Fair, Ali and Mohammed, greeted us and checked us in. Claude’s colleague Thomas, who would be with us at the booth in the book fair, came to the lobby to greet us; Claude himself was coming in the following day.
Lobby in the Corniche al Buhaira Hotel, Sharjah
Sharjah is the most conservative of the seven emirates in the UAE, and Rebecca was concerned about how she would have to dress. We’d read guidelines on various tourist sites, and the information sounded grim about what she would or would not be allowed to do. It sounded awfully strict. No alcohol is served in Sharjah, although adjacent Dubai is a very popular spot for nightclubs.
Many of the local women wore full black abayas, some with faces covered, some wearing gloves; the men wore a white dishdash, the flowing outfit most familiar as “Lawrence of Arabia.” But the book fair people told Rebecca just to stay away from miniskirts and tanktops and she would be fine. As westerners we weren’t expected to dress like the locals. In fact, over the course of the week, Rebecca was treated very well, and we never felt anyone regarding us with disapproval. The people in the city were extremely gracious and polite.
Mohammed assigned us a private driver so that we could go wherever we liked. The following day, Monday, was our only full day to sightsee, so Rebecca and I wanted to make the most of it. How were we to meet up with the driver? Mohammed told us not to worry. “We’ll find you in the morning.”
The breakfast buffet offered selections of Arabic, British, and American food. While we were eating, Mohammed found us— as promised—and introduced us to Majid, our driver and tourguide.
After first delivering us to the Sharjah Expo Center so we could find our booth and do a bit of preliminary setup, Majid took us on a tour of Dubai—a wonderland of incredible and imaginative architecture, including the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world (truly stunning); we rode the elevator to the Burj Khalifa’s high observation deck, which had opened only months earlier, and saw the entire panorama of the city, desert, and Arabian Gulf. (This was a treat for Majid, too, as he’d never been up there.)
Some of the architecture in Dubai
Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world
From the observation deck of the Burj Khalifa
A stop at one of Dubai’s largest shopping malls, then off to lunch at a Persian restaurant Majid highly recommended, a tour of more architecture, and finally out to the beach so we could symbolically dip a toe in the Gulf. Back to the hotel in time for dinner.
The Burj Arab, one of the world’s only 7-star hotels
Kevin at an appropriate store
Yes, we still had jet lag, and now we were overloaded from everything we had seen already…and the book fair hadn’t even started yet.
At our stand on the Expo Center floor, which we shared with Galaxy Press
The following morning, after we finished setting up our books to display in the booth, we were invited to a grand opening ceremony and banquet, where the Sheikh presented some awards and did a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony. During the reception, Claude received word that the Sheikh intended to stop by our stand on his tour of the floor, so we had to rush back there and get prepared. I had NO IDEA what a big deal this was. The Sheikh, the ruler of Sharjah, marched up and down the aisles at a brisk clip (it’s a huge floor, with four exhibition halls and two outside stages), with his full entourage of 50 people or so and mobs of paparazzi clicking pictures and filming TV news. He passed dozens of stands, then stopped at ours to shake my hand. I autographed a book for him, and reporters swooped over the stand like a tidal wave, practically burying Rebecca. He shook my hand again, then moved off at a determined pace down the aisle, then up the next one. Because we were one of the few stands he had visited, we were on UAE television news, and the next morning I was interviewed on Abu Dhabi TV. That night, the Sheikh sent an inscribed copy of his recently published autobiography (in English, released by Bloomsbury) to our hotel room. Later in the week, I received a very ostentatious thank you letter from the Sheikh for The Map of All Things (which he had read).
Meeting the Sheikh
Teachers brought their classes through the fair, boys on one day, girls another, and many stopped by to have their students practice English. I spoke on two panels, talking about how good stories — especially fantasy and science fiction — could be translated across cultural boundaries. Terra Incognita, Crystal Doors, and Star Challengers generated the most interest. (Interestingly, I found that the Arab world has almost no awareness of Duneat all, not even the original novel or the movies.)
UAE students with Star Challengers
In the meantime, during a few spare hours in the hotel room and on the flight over, Rebecca and I finished the last edit on the manuscript for Star Challengers: Space Station Crisis, which had to be turned in pronto or we would miss the publication to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the Challenger accident. Finally, during a break in the fair on Wednesday afternoon, we uploaded the file and sent it off to the publisher—a relief.
After two days at the fair, Claude had arranged for us to all to spend Thursday in Qatar with a book distributor, Hassan, who also works for the ministry of museums. So, we got tickets to fly from Dubai to Doha, Qatar—a one-hour flight, followed by the whole rigamarole of passports and customs—in the afternoon. A driver rounded us up at the Doha airport and took us to the hotel, but we didn’t even have time to take our suitcase to the room before Claude hurried us to the Museum of Islamic Art; Hassan had arranged a tour for us.
Skyline of Doha, Qatar
Qatar’s Museum of Islamic Art
What an impressive museum, both in the architecture and displays, with a spectacular view of the water and the futuristic Doha skyline—which looks like something from the Jetsons. After the museum closed, we waited outside by the fountains and gardens to meet Hassan. The evening was warm and still, and we watched a glorious sunset, a quiet moment before Hassan drove up and took us off on a tour of downtown Doha, which was blossoming into bright lights with nightfall.
Doha as night falls
We had tea and conversation at the sprawling Qatar Cultural Center, which hostde an international film festival that evening. The lighting and architecture of the Cultural Center were breathtaking. Then Hassan took us to the old souks, where we sat around with some of his friends for another cup of tea and conversation, followed by a delicious dinner of local cuisine in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant. In fact, all the food we had in the UAE and Qatar was excellent, not to mention healthy…lamb, chicken, fish, a great deal of vegetables and salads, everything fresh. Hassan wanted to stay out even later, but by this time Rebecca and I were dragging—we hadn’t even been to the hotel room yet—and so we begged off.
Qatar Islamic Culture Center
Hassan and Claude in the Culture Center amphitheater
We flew back to Dubai the following afternoon and returned to book fair duties, attended a panel on comics (with Kuo-Yu Liang from Diamond, Alan Payne from IDW, and Matt Hawkins from Top Cow), and signed books at our stand. The director of the fair introduced us to the Sheik’s daughter, Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi, who runs her own publishing company specializing in Young Adult fiction. We presented her with an autographed set of the Crystal Doors books and the first Star Challengers book.
The next morning we had coffee and lunch with a friend of ours from Colorado who works in Abu Dhabi, so he drove down to Sharjah. He was anxious for some conversation about home. We returned to the Expo Center for the rest of the day and evening. Our flight left out of Dubai at 2 AM, so we said farewell to the fair at 9 PM to go back to the hotel, take a quick shower, and finish packing.
The Dubai airport is larger than most shopping malls, a bustling mix of Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Filipinos, and Westerners, all dressed in different styles. Luxury shops, tourist shops, duty-free shops, restaurants, lounges . . . even an Irish pub! We bought a few last-minute souvenirs, waited in the lounge, then boarded for the long flight home.
At the Dubai airport
The experience certainly recharged my creative batteries and gave me plenty of details to draw upon for creating exotic cultures and strange worlds. But, it’s good to sleep in my own bed again….