Marcia Lynx Qualey
Last updated: 9 November, 2011

The Rise of the Emirati Book Fair

Sharjah International Book Fair organizers are intent, like their counterparts in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, on putting their fair on the map of must-attend literary events. This year’s Sharjah fair, the city’s 30th, is set to run from November 16-26.

Much like the myth of the Emirates itself, these three book fairs seems to have appeared out of nowhere just a few years ago. This year—through major funding, a new translation initiative, and the participation of high-profile artists—the Sharjah fair has swollen into a huge event, overtaking many others in the region. Organizers are taking their fair’s anniversary seriously, celebrating with big-name authors like Egyptians Ahdaf Soueif, Gamal al-Ghitani, and Ibrahim Aslan and Palestinian novelist Liana Badr.

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) has a particularly large contingent, including all 2011 shortlisters, several from the longlist, and 2011 co-winner Mohamed Achaari.

Sharjah’s fair hasn’t come from nowhere: This year, they are celebrating their 30th anniversary. But 2011 marks just the second year that the fair has aspired to be a major international event.

According to Director Ahmed al-Amri, in 2007 there were only nine cultural events at the fair. Indeed, for most of the 2000s, there were no major regional book fairs in the Emirates. Sharjah’s low-key ten-day festival was like many other fairs: mostly a way for city residents to gain access to a selection of discounted books in a less-censorious environment.

That began to change in 2007 when the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) got together with the Frankfurt Book Fair to launch the Abu Dhabi fair, which its organizers now call the “most professionally organised, most ambitious and fastest growing book fair in the Middle East and North Africa.” In 2009, neighboring Dubai held its inaugural “Emirates Airlines Literary Festival.”

And, as Dubai launched its fest, Sharjah also moved toward offering something bigger and more ambitious. In 2009, al-Amri said at last year’s fair, “we increased from around ten to 150. This year it is 200-something.”

In 2011, the Sharjah fair will take a shot at surpassing the other two Emirati fairs—not with international glitter—but with regional, Arabic-speaking significance. There will be non-Arab authors, like Amit Chaudhuri, Sunetra Gupta (India is the “country focus”), Peter James, and Kate Mosse, but the emphasis is surely on the Arab superstar authors and Arabic literature. And this is not just a contest for cultural space within the Emirates: the fair now vies with Cairo’s far older and larger—but chaotic and oddly organized—fair, as well as with Lebanon’s, for the region’s most important fair.

It is yet to be seen what 2012 will bring for book fairs in newly reborn Tunis and Tripoli; likewise, the Cairo fair could be an explosion of cultural, creative, and political energy: positive, negative, or both.

The Sharjah fair will be proceeded by a two-day publishers’ event and launch of the Sharjah Translation Rights Centre* on November 14 and 15. The center has a $300,000 translation fund available for any translation deals sealed or started at the fair.

Saudi Arabia is the Sharjah fair’s guest of honor this year, as they were this year in Prague, where the choice raised hackles and eyebrows. Although the KSA boasts a number of significant authors, most of the books that officials brought along to Prague were non-literary, to say the least.

In the end, book fairs are book fairs—a place to celebrate Arab authors and Arabic writing, and to do publishing deals—but they are also spaces of cultural power. Who will write the story of the Arabic-writing world?

*Marcia Lynx Qualey will be leading a panel at this event.