Sharjah International Book Fair

My first cultural event at Sharjah Book Fair was seeing Octavia Nasr talk.

Yesterday was the first time I had heard of Octavia, and I spent the day with her after being introduced at breakfast time. Throughout the day I pieced together bits about who she is, and I was really looking forward to seeing her event. And it was amazing! For so many reasons! I’ll let my tweets tell the story…

I am in my first #shjibf presentation – the awesome @octavianasr talking about her passion for books.

Growing up during war meant there was not a lot of time for books but @octavianasr had a yearning to expand her world view… #shjibf

21 years ago @octavianasr moved to the us with only the clothes on her back… but got her friends to send over her books bit by bit #shjibf

Such inspiring words from @octavianasr about the importance of books… she is speaking off the cuff so eloquently #admiration #shjibf

‘I find peace in writing, I find love in writing, I find the world in writing’ – @octavianasr #shjibf

Fielding questions in Arabic and English – seriously impressive @octavianasr #shjibf

‘Seeing you today has been a personal disappointment’ – #shjibf audience is looking for comments that @octavianasr won’t/can’t answer.

Rowdy audience at #shjibf – so engaged! @octavianasr can cope, she is ace – coaching audience how to ask questions not just comment!

Advice to aspiring female journos – do what you think is right, be persistent andcreate the change you want @octavianasr #shjibf

You can’t apply old rules to new media, we need new rules for new media – hell yeah, @octavianasr! #shjibf

Octavia really blew me away – she spoke so eloquently and passionately about the importance of books to her and to the world, and also about her history as a writer and reader. Seriously inspiring.

After about 25 mins of talking the audience were invited to ask questions and that’s when things got hairy. Octavia is incredibly well known in the Middle East, and in particular her profile grew exponentially when she was sacked by CNN for a tweet she sent (yeah, shades of Catherine Deveny…!). The audience were really there to hear her talk about that, but she refused, saying that everything that happened is on public record (the internet) and she has nothing to add to the commentary. She has moved on. The end. (There is a good summary of the events in today’s article on Octavia in The National.)

But the audience didn’t accept it and kept posing questions to Octavia, who held her ground, gave back as good as she got, and kept her cool. I know others found the session upsetting or out of order, but I loved it! I have never seen a literary festival audience take a panellist to task like that, and really ask challenging and insightful questions. To be honest, you rarely see it at literary events in general, even when the panels are listed as ‘debates’. I was just so excited to see people so passionate, to hear people stand up and say, ‘well, I’m disappointed’ or whatever.

Generally I felt like the audience was split, and half were egging Octavia on and the others were disappointed. Which is pretty cool when you think about it. The best bit is that I have no doubt that everyone in the room came away with something to think about…

Anyway, I now have a big professional crush on Octavia. She is passionate and erudite and well-informed, a truly inspiring journalist of the new media order. You can check her out on twitter or her website.

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