I have just returned from United Arab Emirates after taking part in the Sharjah International Book Fair . It was an interesting literary festival, not just because it is bilingual (Arabic and English), but because it mixes book fair with trade fair and throws in writers’ festival programming as well.
The Sharjah Book Fair is traditionally, and remains in large part, a book selling event. This year almost 300 publishers were displaying 200,000 titles for sale. With all those publishers operating under the same roof, the enormous Sharjah Expo Centre, the Book Fair is also a key opportunity for those in the book trade to meet and sell rights. In addition to this industry activity, there is a cultural program which hosts a slew of events, from discussions about copyright and lectures on the state of the publishing industry, to book launches, poetry nights, cooking demos and kids' storytelling. All programmed events, and entry to the book fair, are free.
The eleven-day Book Fair has a very different dynamic to festivals I have enjoyed in Australia and Scotland: it is somewhat chaotic (oh for an event to start on time!) and attendance is enormous (100,000 people in the final weekend of the festival alone!). There are literary types attending but also a huge amount of general public. Plus there is a huge appetite for book buying – check out the shopping trolleys to wheel around your purchases! This is due in part to the prices of the books on sale, which are often lower than bookshop prices, and also because of the culture of book fair attendance in the region.
While at the Book Fair I hosted an Emerging Writers' Workshop, which brought together writers from very diverse backgrounds to not just do writing exercises, but discuss what it means to be a writer. It was a very open and lively event, and it was fantastic to meet emerging writers in Sharjah and discover that their ambitions and frustrations are quite similar to writers in Australia. In addition I was pleased to launch several books by emerging writers during my visit.
Festival attendee Sahar Muradi tweets from a writer’s workshop
There was a very strong social media presence at the festival, which connected attendees and created a fantastic commentary to the Book Fair. There were events organised solely on twitter, tweetups, impromptu meetings based on tweets, insightful debate and lots of photo swapping – not to mention loads of laughs. Check the#shjibf twitter feed to see for yourself. I was lucky enough to be kitted out with a tablet phone and data card so I could join in the online fun! Full marks to the organisers of the Book Fair for taking such a professional and innovative approach to social media, which really adds to the enjoyment of the festival for many visitors.
Knowledge Without Borders
One of the discussions that came out of the Book Fair was about the state of Arabic publishing. Although the literary industry appears to be in a state of crisis, it is heartening to see a commitment to re-invigorating the culture of publishing by a broad range of people, from bloggers and publisher to the Emir of Sharjah. The drive to push literary culture is two-fold – firstly, a commitment to connect Arabic readers with books, and secondly, a hope to bring more Arabic writers to the attention of the English-speaking world. (Check out the Knowledge without borders initiative which aims to deck out every Emirati home with a library of books.). I for one have enjoyed discovering many Middle Eastern writers while I’ve been here and look forward to reading more Arabic books in the future.
Lisa Dempster is the Director of the Emerging Writers' Festival. She visited the United Arab Emirates as a guest of the Sharjah International Book Fair and Sharjah Department of Culture and Information.