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Readers visit the Sharjah International Book Fair at the Sharjah Expo Centre in 2010. Amy Leang / The National
Readers visit the Sharjah International Book Fair at the Sharjah Expo Centre in 2010. Amy Leang / The National

The Sharjah International Book Fair, three decades on

Beginning on Wednesday, this year's Sharjah International Book Fair is set to be the biggest in its 31-year-history. We take a look at what's in store.

What it is

It's arguably one of the most illustrious book fairs in the Arab world. Each year the region's biggest authors, cultural icons, academics and industry heads descend on Sharjah for book signings, panel discussions and workshops. International authors also take part and most sessions are translated into English. For Arabic readers and those interested in literature from the region, the book fair is an excellent opportunity to find some lesser-known titles and hidden gems, with 894 publishers from 35 countries, including 14 from the Arab world, taking part. Best of all, the sessions are free.

Thirty-one years and still going strong

"It's nearly as old as the country," says the fair's director Ahmed Al Amri. "The book fair really is the first of its kind here in the UAE and has put the UAE on the map when it comes to literature and culture." Al Amri credits the fair's longevity to the personal support of His Highness Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. "He inaugurates the book fair personally on an annual basis," says Al Amri. "He closely follows the various cultural programmes, dialogues and panel discussions."

Bigger and better

Capitalising on subcontinental literature's growing popularity in the region, Indian publishing houses have increased their numbers in the festival five-fold and the Pakistani literary world will be represented for the first time with 20 publishers taking part. "The growing level of participation as well as the selection of high-standard and unique publishers participating this year are measures of the reputation of the Sharjah book fair," says Al Amri.

International authors

The list is both glamorous and exhaustive, with more than 100 authors invited, representing genres ranging from popular fiction to historical non-fiction, and period novels to swashbuckling romance. The Man Booker Prize-winning Arundhati Roy will make an appearance as will the famed British historian and "method actor" of contemporary biography Robert Lacey.

The top-selling fiction author Michael Marshall Smith is set to discuss his popular works, while the Australian Tony Cavanaugh will shed light on his thrilling debut novel Promise and his sterling career as a screenwriter. Julia Gregson, whose novel East of the Sun was a best-seller in the UK, will discuss the balancing act that is romantic fiction.

Newshounds will be delighted by the addition of the BBC television journalist Gavin Esler, who is the host of the flagship programmes Newsnight and Dateline London. Food authors will add extra flavour to the event with Mridula Baljekar set to discuss the rich world of Indian cuisine. Culinary fusion and Egyptian cuisine will be explained by Amy Riolo. There is also something for the kids with children's authors Ian Whybrow (Harry and the Bucketful of Dinosaurs) and Dear Max's Sally Grindley making an appearance.

From the Arab world

It really doesn't get any bigger than Adil Emam. The actor turned cultural phenomenon has been the face of Egyptian cinema for nearly five decades. In what is set to be a key panel discussion, the screen stalwart will discuss Egyptian filmmaking after the revolution. The UAE poet and writer Habib Al Sayegh will be honoured with the prestigious Cultural Personality of the Year award for his 40-year contribution to the UAE's literary scene. The popular Algerian novelist Ahlam Mostaghanmi will dissect her popular comic self-help book The Art of Forgetting.

Recommended sessions

Join the Egyptian screen stars Adil Emam and Yahya Al Fakharani on Thursday for their anticipated session The Arab Spring and Its Impact on Cinema (7pm to 8.15pm). The acclaimed Indian author and essayist Pankaj Mishra will have a discussion with local students on Thursday (11am to 12pm). And Arundhati Roy will no doubt enchant with selected readings from her work on Friday (8.30pm).

The Sharjah International Book Fair runs from Wednesday to November 17 at the Sharjah Expo Centre, Al Taawun Street, Al Khan (near Al Taawun Mall), Sharjah, from 10am to 10pm. All sessions are free

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