The Sharjah International Book Fair—the region’s second-largest after Cairo—is an event under construction. Just a few years ago, it was similar to Cairo’s January book festival: a place where publishers could sell and residents could jostle, people watch and buy. Now in its 29th year, the 2010 festival runs from 26 October through 6 November and has brought in prominent publishers and authors, such as Nobel Prize-winning J.M.G. Le Clezio and "Arabic Booker"-winning Egyptian Youssef Ziedan.
According to Sharjah fair director Ahmed al-Amri, in 2007 there were only nine cultural events at the fair. Residents might have attended a poetry reading or two, but the ten-day festival was mostly a way for city residents to gain access to a large selection of discounted books from around the region.
At this year’s fair, residents still filled shopping carts with Arabic, English and French books. But the cultural and professional side of the fair was far different.
“What we did last year,” al-Amri said, “was we increased from around ten [professional and cultural events] to 150. This year is 200-something.”
Sharjah also has, for the last two years, offered one of the world’s largest literary prizes: the million-dirham (LE1.5 million) Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature. This year, the winner was the Egyptian publishing house Dar al-Shorouk, for its El Noqta El Sooda (The Black Dot). The publishing house will split the purse with the book’s author and illustrator, Cairo native Walid Taher.
Third place was taken by Egyptian publishing house Elias Modern and local author/illustrator Rania Hussein Amin for her Farahana Wa Sir Jamaliha (Farhana and the Secrets of Her Beauty).
In a panel about the prize-selection process, judges gushed about Taher’s book, with the four in attendance agreeing that it was a book both for children and for adults. Judge Penny Holroyde, an agent with the Caroline Sheldon Literary Agency, said that there was little doubt El Noqta El Sooda was the judges’ favorite. “I think all of us really gravitated toward this book almost the minute we saw it.”
She added, “It already has a classic, classic feel to it.”
Dozens of professional events dotted the schedule. Experts like Shorouk publishers Amira Abu al-Magd and Ibrahim al-Moalem spoke to those in the book trade. Other professional events addressed topics such as digital development, translation, how to get published and selling into international markets.
“We’ve been to book fairs from the United States to Japan,” al-Amri said. “We’re trying to promote UAE in general and Sharjah in particular as a cultural hub.”
The pursuit of this distinction is marked by an often over-helpful customer service, one which can be a little uncomfortable for the visitor. In the restrooms, for instance, an employee would rush forward, unbidden, to assist patrons with the sinks’ motion sensors. Some patrons had their hands washed for them.
But, despite well-attended professional events and eager service, the cultural events were a harder sell. Parents and teachers shepherded children to packed readings and puppet shows, but many of the marquis events for adults were poorly promoted and meagerly attended.
Dr. Naif al-Mutawa, creator of the internationally acclaimed comic book seriesThe 99, spoke on a panel about comics attended by only about twenty listeners. Dr. Youssef Ziedan, author of the “Arabic Booker”-winning Azazel, had just a handful more at his “Dialogue about Arts and History.”
Dr. Ziedan was perhaps the fair’s most controversial speaker. The Egyptian professor has now written three novels, as well as over fifty other books about Sufism, Islamic philosophy and Arabic medicine. Earlier this year, two Hesba cases were filed against Ziedan—one by Christian lawyers and one by Islamists—both objecting to his statements about religion. Christian attorneys particularly objected to Ziedan's talk at an Al-Youm al-Saba'a symposium, where Ziedan apparently referred to Christian "myths." The Islamists' case has been dismissed, but the case filed by Christian lawyers is still ongoing.
Dr. Ziedan's dialogue on the fair’s opening night, at which he spoke lovingly about history, turned into a debate on religion. Speakers from Sharjah's academic and religious circles came up to the podium, some with hand-written notes, to dispute the professor on Islam. And, on the festival’s opening morning, the ruler of Sharjah—Sultan bin Mohamed al-Qasimi, himself an historian and writer—visited the Dar el Shorouk booth during his rounds of the fair. Al-Moalem presented Sharjah’s ruler with a number of books, including El Noqta El Sooda and Dr. Ziedan’s Azazel.
At this point, Dr. Ziedan stepped through the crowd to introduce himself. Dr. Sheikh Sultan took the opportunity to chide the Egyptian author for stirring up controversy with Azazel, which purports to be the memoirs of a fifth-century monk named Hypa. The book has upset some Coptic Christians, who feel the book's statements about Christian history are "incorrect." Dr. Ziedan, however, spoke in defense of his choices, noting that Azazel is fiction.
Despite low attendance at some of the newer ventures—such as the author panels and the evening cooking demonstrations—Sharjah organizers are pressing forward with expanding the fair.
“What we believe is … you have to reach the people,” al-Amri said. “In the publishing market, things take time.”
The surrounding city has a number of impressive galleries and museums—including the world-class Maraya gallery, run by Egyptian Mandy Merzaban—while lacking the “tallest this” and “sparkliest that” of neighboring Dubai. But, al-Amri said, that’s for a reason. “We invest in people more than we invest in buildings in Sharjah. [Dr. Sheikh Sultan] invests in people. Because when you invest in people,” it brings a greater return.
Festival organizers were already focused on next year, which will be their 30th in operation. Dr. Sheikh Sultan is apparently writing a special book just for the 30th, and organizers are scouring the globe for international authors and publishers.