The Biggest Book Fair You’ve Never Heard Of
November 7, 2019 § 4 Comments
I thought I’d misheard the number when the Consul General of the United States mentioned the attendance of the eleven-day Sharjah International Book Fair in his welcome speech at the American Authors Reception. The same number showed up on Wikipedia—I figured maybe it was inflated for PR purposes.
“Where would they all park?” asked my agent.
Then I read the program. Almost 2000 exhibitors are here—publishers, distributors, government culture agencies, bookstores. (If you’ve been to the annual AWP Conference, they have around 500 exhibitors. So multiply that overwhelm by 4.) Admission is free. There’s a Comic Station, a Cookery Corner, and a Social Media Station, a weird blue cube in which I talked to a deeply attentive audience about writing for social media. The main lobby outside was so crowd-loud I needed a handheld mic in what was functionally a closed room. Today’s Women in Publishing Summit is expected to have nearly 300 people, including yours truly.
The entire publishing industries of the Middle East and North Africa are here; two full days are devoted to international rights sales. The region includes 411 million people; it’s not a stretch to imagine six-tenths of a percent of them work in publishing or government agencies promoting their national literary tradition. Throw in India (at least 80 Indian publishers are here) and you’re selecting bookstore owners, editors and readers from another 1.3 billion people. And they don’t need to park—most of them flew here and Uber-ed to the convention center. Many of the locals have drivers.
On the exhibit floor, there were books in Arabic, English, Hindi, French, German, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese. A local chain bookstore displayed new books at 40% off. A historic publisher from the UK displayed priceless engraved first editions in glass cases. Here, Borders still lives and they’ve got a booth. There are names I’ve heard: Anita Nair, Steve Harvey, Orhan Pamuk, Bernice McFadden, Amitabh Bachchan, Macmillan, Amazon, the American Library Association. Vikram Seth explained to a hall packed with schoolchildren that he’d have written more books if he stopped playing Candy Crush.
There are a lot more names I haven’t heard, Arabic, Indian and Persian authors packing the auditorium, their book-signing lines snaking through the cavernous main hall. Then again, I hadn’t heard of Sharjah until I moved to Dubai. The United Arab Emirates is actually seven independent units—I’d call them city-states if they weren’t plopped in the middle of spacious desert, but the principle is the same. Everyone’s heard of Dubai and most people know Abu Dhabi. There’s also Ras al Khaimah, Ajman, Fujairah, Umm al Quain, and Sharjah. Sharjah is next-door to Dubai, it’s 100% dry (no alcohol or rain), and it loves books.
UNESCO named Sharjah the World Book Capital for 2019, recognizing “the best city program aimed at promoting books.” The Book Fair is under the patronage of the ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi. The Sheikh (who holds doctorates in History and Political Geography) not only opened the Book Fair and hung out (or whatever one calls casual royal interaction), he welcomed the American authors at a reception at the US Consul General’s house.
Can you imagine the highest government official in your home country not only making time for the big cultural event photo op, but sticking around to enjoy the scene, then heading over to a house party to personally welcome another country’s visiting authors? (Maybe if you’re Icelandic.)
This gives me hope in the world. That even in an absolute monarchy, in a region of the world where human rights as we conceive them in the West are not a particularly high priority, even in a place where a lot of women write books because it’s a socially acceptable activity when you live with your parents until you get married and something’s gotta fill that time, there is a love of literature so profound that high society, top officials, royalty, Nobel laureates and movie stars have all showed up to celebrate it.
It also gives me hope that keynote speaker Steve Harvey earned a negative review for his “outdated views about family and the roles of men and women” in local paper The National. Free speech is not a right in the UAE. Newspaper stories are approved, and people with power are condoning that statement. Books published locally go through a three-permit process, including submitting one’s manuscript for government approval—but plenty of books published elsewhere are distributed in the Emirates. We all know words can change the world, bring communities together and cross international borders. Honoring literature is honoring ideas, and it’s moving to watch that happen here.