Book Fair in the Desert Blooms

Emerging Writers' Festival director and avid traveller Lisa Dempster reports on the growth of contemporary literary culture within and around the Sharjah International Book Fair, which in 2011 celebrated its thirtieth anniversary.

The Sharjah International Book Fair takes place over ten days and is unique in many ways. In the west we are used to our literary events looking a certain way – our writers festivals are about discussion and debate (and selling retail books); our book expos focus on publishers, distributors and agents (and selling rights); and our writers’ conferences focus on industry skills development (and selling manuscripts). The Sharjah International Book Fair is a combination of all these elements.

A book trolley from Sharjah International Book Fair. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

A book trolley from Sharjah International Book Fair. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

Traditionally, the core of what the Fair has done is act as a large public-facing book sales outlet. Hundreds of publishers come to sell their books direct to readers, and the public come and buy books in the thousands – often buying a year’s worth to take advantage of the retail discounts. (The book trolleys are one of the best things about the Fair!) A robust schools programme has been in place for many years, with schools visiting the Fair on weekdays. And, informally, publishers and distributors have had a chance to meet and network.

But in the past two years – which I have been lucky enough to attend – Sharjah has added other elements to the Book Fair: in 2010 it featured its first literary discussions and panels, including a cookery corner, and in 2011 it scheduled a professional programme aimed at bringing publishers and agents together from around the world to sell and buy rights. The Fair also awards literary prizes, including the one million dirham Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, and in 2011 set up a $300,000 translation fund. But why the mixed bag of offerings?

For one, Sharjah is currently incredibly dedicated to developing a literary culture where there currently isn’t much of one, and its book fair is the centrepiece of that development. (Of course, the region has one of the longest histories of literary culture in the world – when I talk about a ‘developing’ culture, I am speaking about commercial publishing and bookselling.)

A large audience gathers during the 2011 fair. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

A large audience gathers during the 2011 fair. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

In general, the writing and publishing culture in the UAE – and, more broadly, the Middle East – is far less developed than what we enjoy in Australia. Fewer publishers, less bookshops, and difficulty in distributing work due to cultural and geographic fragmentation in the market means that there are less writers and readers – and yes, less literary infrastructure. There are currently two major literary festivals in the UAE – Sharjah Book Fair and the Emirates Literary Festival in Dubai – and no writers’ centres or other institutions. Digital publishing is basically non-existent. A similar situation exists throughout the Middle East.

However, the current emir of Sharjah, Sheikh Dr. Sultan al Qasimi, in addition to being a writer himself, is a great lover of books and literature. It’s with his support, teamed with the energetic direction of Festival Director Ahmed al Amri and festival patron publisher Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi, that Sharjah’s Book Fair is diversifying and becoming larger. Thus the rapid growth and expansion of the fair, and also – I felt – the experimentation in trying out different programming elements to see what will work. There is a recognition that to sell books and get people reading, there needs to be a strong local industry in place. (Many of the books sold at the Book Fair are imports – from the Middle East, India and the West, largely – with few titles available from Emirati authors; simply because there aren’t many published.)

Sharjah's Poetry House. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

Sharjah's Poetry House. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

As a visiting Australian it was fascinating to look at the developing literary culture in Sharjah, and how the Book Fair is uniquely both creating and responding to the needs of its citizens. Post 2010, after the Fair first introduced a social media team (which I was on), there was a rise in the sense of community around book readers and writers in the UAE. On my return in 2011 I discovered that in the past year, more than one book club had been set up; at least two books had been self published; a locally-organised and very well attended 100 Thousand Poets for Change event had taken place, and through the @shjintlbookfair Twitter account, many people had connected with each other to talk books. A flow-on result was much larger attendance at the Book Fair last year – as an audience member I noticed a definite rise in the number of people attending the discussion panels to hear authors talk about their work.

Sadaf Syed's photo documentary *iCOVER*. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

Sadaf Syed's photo documentary iCOVER. (Photo: Lisa Dempster)

Attending the Sharjah International Book Fair has been eye-opening. Excitingly, I got to meet and speak with writers from around the world, and appreciate the truly global literary outlook that the region has (in Australia I get frustrated that we spend so much time looking to the West.) It also confirmed something that I have long suspected – that, despite the doom and gloom we sometimes go on about, Australia is an unnaturally friendly place for writers.

But most vitally, it was fascinating as a festival director to see how Sharjah is taking shape as a force for literary culture in the UAE (it is an ambition I share for the Emerging Writers’ Festival!). It was refreshing and inspiring to visit a Fair that seems familiar in many ways, but has its own modes of operation, and unique ideas about what it can and should do. What is a literary festival? What should it be? What could it be? Sharjah International Book Fair is asking these questions, and shaping up to be a unique – and powerful – force for literature, in the Emirates and beyond.

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