Sharjah International Book Fair 29th Edition

My photo
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates
ExpoCenter 7th - 17th November, 2012. Hours | Saturday - Thursday: 10a.m. - 10p.m.; Friday: 4p.m - 10p.m.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

Digital Writing in the Middle East | if:book Australia

While visiting the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates, I was pleased to find a panel in the program titled Between Classic and Electronic Creative Writing. What shape would a discussion on digital writing in the Middle East take?

The panellists were from diverse backgrounds – Ahmed Maaty (Egypt), Ibrahim Jrady (Syria) and Fadhel Thamer (Iraq) – and the discussion broad-ranging. The panel was both enlightening and frustrating. It was fascinating to gain a new cultural perspective on a topic that is so prevalent in the West. But, ultimately, the panel seemed to fetishise the ‘paper book’ overall and pass the buck to the ‘new generation’ to solve the challenges of new technology.

A caveat: the panel was in Arabic and I listened in through an interpretor, so some of the points in the complex discussion may have gotten lost in translation.

Fadhel Thamer spoke about facing the internet era and how the ‘old generation’ have avoided keeping pace with new technologies. However, the internet can no longer be avoided.

He noted the importance of panels like this, discussing technology and creative writing, and spoke about ‘the new creativity’: new modes of production across all kinds of narrative, including theatre. Despite a general wariness about the change in the literary landscape, he thinks it is vital to explore and embrace the possibilities as young people are increasingly choosing computers over books. ‘The new generation don’t like paper books,’ Thamer said, ‘they like the internet and computers. You can’t impose print so how can we as writers and publishers cope with this?’

One option is to look at books and find new ways to make them appealing. Interactive and collective writing is an option, as is writing poems and novels in digital formats. Thamer noted the excellent opportunities for discussion that digital writing creates, and how a blog with comments can be a place to develop and distribute a point of view. In narrative, a potential growth area is in metafiction or metanarrative works that integrate new technologies and are appealing to readers who are comfortable in the digital environment.

Ahmed Maaty questioned whether the book is losing importance and if we will need to change poetry and novels as we know them. Citing the changes in technology across the ages – from cave drawings to the printing press to the internet – he noted that, now as then, ‘what is important is the story, and the opinions’. As he eloquently added: ‘poems are not only poems when they are written in certain ways, they are poems when they touch our souls’.

Although initially concerned about the thought of technology violating private lives, he now sees the value in the internet as a tool for communication. Despite this promising opening, Maaty then spent a long time talking about the potential problems of digital writing. He fears for the increasing lack of connection between people that the internet era represents, and spoke at length about problems with intellectual property rights and writers making less money from rights and content because all the information is free. He said:

‘There has been a revolution in information giving but (paper) books lead to intellectual communication and discussions between people; technology has weakened the emotional humanitarianism between people.’

Maaty clearly fetishises print, stating, in an argument that readers of this site will be familiar with: ‘What is good about books is we can hug books, we can read them in bed’. Although a frustrating argument (digital publishing is not, after all, a zero sum game where ebooks will necessarily replace all print books), it made me smile to hear that this sentimental idea is echoed around the world.

Ibrahim Jrady, too, started with a promising premise, initially speaking on creativity. He noted that is is not the form that makes us artists, but the act of creating. However, he then posed the questions, ‘Is new technology better than paper books? Can the internet topple print?’, and answered them with a resounding ‘No’.

He cited the fact that bestselling writers of paper books are still the most read authors, the ingrained habit of reading print, and the beauty of having books and libraries in our homes. However, he thinks that young people won’t be into print books because they have never had an attachment to them, and so the question will be how to make the two forms complementary.

Jrady did, however, point out the problem with the panel; that they were all ‘old generation’. As an audience member it was frustrating to hear from a panel of middle aged male academics; I was longing to hear from a writer or publisher who was embracing the opportunities of digital publishing rather than studying them.

A more diverse perspective did come from the audience. A young female teacher commented that, rather than isolating people, reading digital books in her classroom encouraged sharing ideas, increasing the amount of discussion about the texts happening among the students.

Another audience member commented that technology is a reality which is past the point of discussion, an issue with which we have to deal practically. ‘What we need is to put an end to technological illiteracy,’ he said, noting that none of the panellists had thought to use any media, such as powerpoint, in their presentations. He spoke about the digital opportunities within the Arab world, and how publishers should be thinking about how to use the digital space to promote local authors and writers.

A final comment from the audience spoke about the possibilities of narratives in the digital space, and how new technologies can create vital spaces for limitless creativity and freedom.

From the tone of the audience comments, it seemed that many people felt the disconnect between the realities of what is actually happening in the digital space and the panel’s adversorial discussion about the battle between print and digital (a feeling that Australian audiences at some ‘future book’ events might be familiar with!).

Digital publishing in the Arab world is far less developed than in Australia, but it is interesting to note the similarities in how the industry is developing in this part of the world. Advances in digital creativity also seems to be writer- and reader- rather than publisher-driven, with industry discourse and publishers struggling to keep up. Although the uptake of creative technology is in its early stages, there are writersblogging and self-publishing in the UAE; however, there are currently few publishing houses creating ebooks and no Arabic ebooks available at all. As in Australia, there is a feeling of frustration that the infrastructure (funding bodies, major publishing houses, etc) is being slow to catch up with what is happening in the arena of new digital art forms.

There was one line of discussion among the panellists that celebrated the digital: that the internet poses amazing possibilities for increasing freedom of expression and political activism. ‘No one imagined that this electronic game could lead to revolutions in the Arab world,’ Thamer said.

Agreeing, Jrady noted that, ‘The internet positive for the Arab people because they are seeking freedom and the internet is a space of freedom. Young people are expressing their opinions online.’

With the recent events of the Arab Spring, in the Middle East there are more people than ever getting online to connect and commentate. In Australia there was a definite surge in creative digital output concurrent with increasing technical literacy that came with the large uptake of social media sites such as Facebook and then Twitter. As more became comfortable with reading and communicating online, publishers and creators alike saw the possibilities of digital writing, which has led to an increase in blogging, ebook publishing and the like. An increasing digital literacy in the Arab world, coupled with the democratic political possibilities of the online space, will no doubt lead to a similar situation, where more writers and publishers will use available technology to disseminate their work.

I think it’s important for Australia keep an eye on how diverse markets are tackling these issues – that is, not just looking to the US and Europe – to ensure that we can can continue to grow our digital industries as strategically and successfully as possible on both a local and global scale.

Dining with Diplomats: Sharjah: The Cultural Pearl of the UAE

I had the good fortune of spending last week in the UAE. According to my Facebook messages, many people in the US and Europe don't know where that is, so please bear with me as I digress for a moment. UAE stands for United Arab Emirates, it is a small country in the Arabian Gulf - known for it's capital Abu Dhabi, and glitzy Dubai.

This was my second trip to the UAE this year. I attended the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair in March, and now had the chance to attend theSharjah International Book Fair. Prior to recieving my invitation, I had never heard of Sharjah (spelled shar-i qa in Arabic, but pronounced Sharjah by the locals). When I began looking for info online and in travel guides, the results weren't very exciting. Labeled a "dry" town since alcohol is prohibited within the city limits, many tourists avoid it like the plague for fear that it is a city full of religious fanatics -but it is not.

Sharjah is a city full of proud people who love their ancient culture, religion, and young nation. On any given day, there are over 140 different nationalities working together - and "cultural awareness" takes on a whole new meaning. Locals are used to working and living with foreigners.

Sharjah's vibe is young and energetic full of dreams and aspirations for tomorrow as its citizens work to carve out a niche for themselves. I can't help but think that this must be how it felt to be in the United States during its development.

When I arrived, I found these flowers awaiting me in the hotel room.
This was the view from the balcony of Sharjah overlooking the lagoon.

These two pictures were taken inside the Sharjah Museum of Islamic Civilization.

We enjoyed a tour and a lovely dinner inside. Fellow cookbook authorSophie Grey is featured on my left.

My friend Chef Robert Arbor and I walked back to the hotel from the museum and found a myriad of Persian delights awaiting for us - everything from beautifully displayed nuts and spices (including crates full of bright red quality saffron) and restaurants. One of the guides who escorted me from the Ministry of Culture said that many Emirati families (like his) have Persian origins and that the close physical proximity to Iran makes it's spectacular cuisine popular in the way that Mexican food abounds in the Southwestern United States.

The people of Sharjah are completely clear on what it is, and what it isn't. It doesn't aspire to be as cosmopolitan as Dubai, or as powerful as Abu Dhabi. While it could settle on being a sleepy suburb offering close proximity and more convenience than Dubai - it has declared itself the UAE's cultural capital. Boasting numerous museums, universities, cultural centers, and a convention center with international exhibitions, Sharjah's vision is easy to understand.

These cookies are made to celebrate the UAE's 40th birthday on December 2nd. This national holiday is hugely popular - and people begin celebrating it a month early! They even have a special cologne called "December 2"! I love the combination of new construction and traditional dwellings - the juxtaposition of desert and water, the friendliness of the locals, the parks, and the ability to stroll on the streets in the evenings. One of the best places to witness this attitude is in Al Qasba, the new (but made to feel old) neighborhood below.

We ate dinner at the Shababeek (meaning "windows" in Arabic) restaurant which had a modern Arabesque vibe and featured delicious Lebanese appetizers, kabobs and rice for the main course. Dessert (featured above) consisted of creamy milk pudding with orange blossom petals and pistachios as a garnish and Kallaj which are a special kind of pastry that resembles a cross between phyllo dough and a crepe and filled with Qishta (homemade sweetened clotted cream).

The next day we got an early start to visit UAE's East coast. We passed Al Dhaid (an oasis town) and the Hajar Mountains. We also passed into the country of Oman which has been a long time dream of mine. At the border, there wasn't a remarkable difference between the two countries, other than their flags.

As with other Middle Eastern areas, many tribes shared bloodlines and land long before modern national borders were established, paving way for strong cultural, political, and culinary ties. As we drove inside Oman we noticed that the mosques were stark white (reminiscent of the Greek isles) with bright blue domes like the water. The gulf of Oman is beautiful and home to many types of seafood including shrimp, crab, eel, prawns, and hundreds of species of fish.

We got to visit Fort Nizwa - one of the most impressive of all the Omani forts which was destroyed and then rebuilt again.

Since November is National Diabetes Awareness Month in UAE, and there are unfortunatley many people struggling to achieve a healthy lifestyle, I was asked to give a lecture to the students at Sharjah Women's College.

They gave me this beautiful drawing of a man's hands playing a traditional wooden instrument.

Back at the fair, which was my main reason for going to UAE in the first place, I gave 3 different cooking demos, all focused on healthful Mediterranean Cuisine. Chef Majid (a local TV celebrity,author, and prominent chef) presented all of the guest chefs.

I demonstrated breads including Moroccan, focaccia, and fougasse on the first day. On the second day, my friend Chef Robert and I demonstrated the French and Italian ways of making chicken and vegetables. He made French style chicken and ratatouille while I made Italian style chicken and caponata. We discussed the similarities and common roots between French and Italian cooking styles.

Our colleague Sophie Grey demonstrated sweets from her bakery and Whoopie pies from her latest book...we had so much fun that we decided next year we would turn our duo into a trio!
Sophie's sweets are truly fantastic. After a long day in the sun and touring Oman, by the time we arrived back to Sharjah for our evening demos I was feeling hungry, tired, and faint. Luckily, Sophie made extras and I was quickly revived with the energy I needed to carry on with my own demo.

The next night we had dinner in the dessert. Here are two traditional teapots which were actually used to brew Arabian coffee. With it's light hue and cardamom aroma, many people mistake Arabian coffee for tea. In traditional Emirati culture, guests are greeted with coffee, dates, and incense steam. This is a different from other gulf cultures, such as Saudi, where the passing of the incense sensor usually denotes the end of the meal and is a signal for guests to leave.

A local dessert tribal dance video:

Traditional bread called Khubz Rukhal:

Below are some of the appetizers that awaited us during our desert dinner. Overall, it was a fantastic trip - one that combined professional responsibilities with the opportunity for new personal relationships and an enormous amount of culture. I can't wait to return!

Children don’t flatter to impress : Ruskin Bond at SIBF

Notes from the Ruskin Bond meet at the Sharjah International Book fair 2011

Nov 23 2011 : Tweets by @mujeebjaihoon
‘I wish to write poetry, but no publishers are ready to take it up” Ruskin Bond at – posted on 24/11/2011 09:37:51
‘A good writer should be sincere and be good at language’ RUSKIN BOND. – posted on 23/11/2011 21:01:32
‘I love children because they don’t flatter when they assess me’ RB. @kalimat_books – posted on 23/11/2011 20:59:22
‘Writing may be a lonely and solitary affair’ – posted on 23/11/2011 20:57:00
‘No one encouraged me when I began to write.’ – posted on 23/11/2011 20:55:27
‘some think I have grown old and they have me the lifetime award’ RB. :) – posted on 23/11/2011 20:53:31
‘Without readers no writers’ RB. – posted on 23/11/2011 20:43:49
Publisher thanks audience for creating a mini India outside India. – posted on 23/11/2011 20:42:29
‘My name’s bond. Ruskin Bond’ :) – posted on 23/11/2011 20:39:22
Ruskin Bond on stage. – posted on 23/11/2011 20:37:18
Ruskin Bond, an old man, has defied age by connecting with children so passionately. he has been writing for 5 decades. – posted on 23/11/2011 20:34:16
Moms telling kids to relax and be patient. Ruskin Bond have made them go wild. – posted on 23/11/2011 20:32:24
Ruskin mobbed by school students. It’s a riot here. – posted on 23/11/2011 20:31:25

As you Read, so shall you Reap

Pluralism is not a sign of cowardice but of courage and pragmatism to appreciate the diversity in the scheme of Almighty's creations.

Part one of a series of essays on Sharjah International Book Fair 2011
Cultivating Arts & Culture
A major part of today’s problems arise due to our impatience for the fruits of our hard work. We yearn for the harvest just the day after the planting without waiting for the seed to mature, the water and sunlight to reach, for the crop to grow and then wait for the fruit.
The incredible success of the Sharjah International Book Fair was in reality a harvest whose seeds were sown some three decades ago in the culturally fertile soil of the emirate of Sharjah.
Dr. Sheikh Sultan, the ruler of Sharjah, is a man who has a very clear idea about the intellectual future of the people of this nation. His scholarship is as amazing his magnanimity. Himself an author of several books and an incessant patron of arts and cultural activities at home and abroad, the scholarly Sheikh is unparalleled among the rulers of the region or even rest of the world.
Beauty in Diversity
Sharjah has evolved to become the literary and cultural powerhouse of the region and its biggest investment has been in culture and related fields. And the large-hearted ‘Cultural Architect’ has built the foundation of his society on the basis of diversity and pluralism. ( Sharjah already boasts of several churches for different denominations for the Christian believers. The recently opened Russian Orthodox Church in Sharjah became the biggest of its kind outside the former Soviet Union for the 200,000 Orthodox Church members living in the country — mostly in Sharjah.
No one living in the present with a minimum level of awareness will hesitate to agree on the pluralistic nature of our times. And the world cannot go ahead without tolerance and respect for each others’ beliefs and thoughts. The Sharjah Book Fair attempted to find beauty in this diversity of human experiences.
With India as the country focus, the Fair attracted huge crowds from the Indian community, the largest demographic group in the country’s population. It also had women writers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon and other Gulf countries. Poets from the United States and novelists from United Kingdom also added to the hues of the literary rainbow that shone in the skies above the emirate.
Write books, write off prejudice
Peter James, the crime novelist from UK, says that Shakespeare wrote plays because not many in England could read in those days. The Sharjah International Book Fair proved to be an excellent opportunity to learn how to write books and simultaneously write off the prejudices which comes as a result of the ignorance.
The leadership of any community has to ensure there is no fear in the minds of its people, for, fear will make them see only the thorn and NOT the rose.
Pluralism is not a sign of cowardice but of courage and pragmatism to appreciate the diversity in the scheme of Almighty’s creations. And there is nothing like it which is so direly needed at the moment in the Arab world. It is not just the Spring, but all the four seasons which together give life its complete glory.