The old saw has it that “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, and Baghdad reads.” Although literacy rates in Baghdad have crashed tragically since the blockade of the 1990s and the invasion of 2003, Cairo still writes and Beirut still publishes.
But the saying is incomplete in another way. It needs an addition: The Emirates is doing publishing’s business.
This far-reaching business is done in two cities: in Sharjah (in November) and in Abu Dhabi (in March and early April), although one British journalist somewhat grouchily told Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) director al-Qubaisi, during a group interview, that, “British publishers need one fair to emerge.” These publishers weren’t, she said, willing to make two trips to the region each year to do deals.
Al-Qubaisi, who declined to comment on any competition between Abu Dhabi and other fairs, said that he didn’t see the Abu Dhabi fair’s primary role as a “bazaar,” like most other fairs in the region. ADIBF has maintained its book-selling side, he said, because “the distribution problem is really putting pressure on the book fair.”
But as more and more people can buy their books in bookstores, this aspect of the fair shrinks. If booksellers could (by on-demand publishing, e-pub, or other means) create a solution whereby Cairenes can buy Moroccan novels, and Jordanians can buy Algerian works, without the fairs, then the “bazaar” aspect would become a relic of the past. Then the book fair becomes largely a place for publishers to do business, for excellent writing to be recognized, and for the public to interact with great writers.
Indeed, although (anecdotally) sales seemed to dip again this year, the business, training, and excellent-author aspects of the fair all were on the rise.
The evening before the fair opened, Rabee Jaber won this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his novel Druze of Belgrade, which prize judge Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla called a “very interesting historical novel.” Parilla added, “I think Rabee Jaber is a great narrator, a great storyteller. He is able to get a reader, from the very beginning, into his stories, no matter what he writes about. He is one of the greatest narrators on the Arabic scene.”
Jaber, who wanted to get back to his writing routine in Beirut, did not participate in the fair. But a number of other high-profile Arab writers — Ibrahim Nasrallah, Ibrahim al-Koni, Alia Mamdouh — gave lively presentations, as did authors from the UK and US, such as the graphic-novel team Amir and Khalil.
The fair was also a time to showcase a number of new reading initiatives, such as the library-book vending machines that will be coming to malls in Abu Dhabi within the next two months.
Al-Qubaisi, who is also deputy director general for the National Library, said that he expects around 90 percent of the books in the machines will be in Arabic and around 10 percent in English, a marked difference from bookshops around the Emirates, where a far larger percentage of the books are in foreign languages.
Digital publishing talks and initiatives also drew interest from publishers, with growing interest in e-books, apps, and new e-pub methods.