ABU DHABI // It is a great loss to literature that the Dubai Metro opened 140 years too late for Charles Dickens to buy a Nol Card.
The 19th-century British novelist would have been inspired, according to an author speaking at the 22nd Abu Dhabi International Book Fair yesterday.
"He would have enjoyed writing about the unseen below," mused Philip Ardagh, a British author who created a children's book character inspired by Dickens. "Especially the lives of the people below such as the repairmen. It would have been a wonderful world for him."
Mr Ardagh spoke after the Emirati artist Amal Zainal Alkhaja was awarded first place in the Sketches by Boz illustrating competition, organised as part of the fair to celebrate the bicentenary of Dickens's birth.
Ms Alkhaja's illustrations depict Dubai's rail system and its multicultural patrons. "I spent two weeks looking at people as I drew," she said of her process. "Some people thought I was stalking them and they quickly walked away."
The book fair drew thousands of visitors to the capital's national exhibition centre at the weekend, where they attended literary discussions, workshops and poetry readings.
More than 900 exhibitors showed off their wares at the six-day festival, which began on Wednesday and ends tomorrow.
Families left carting piles of new books in boxes, plastic bags and jammed in the undercarriages of baby strollers. Wael Mohammed, from Aghared Al Tafula, an Egyptian children's publishing company, said the interaction with the customers gave his job flavour.
"Children in the Gulf are very advanced and their parents will buy just as many Arabic as English products," he said.
In a typical year, he and his team travel to nearly a dozen book fairs in the Middle East and North Africa.
Each fair has its own identity, he said, which is why the items he sells differ at each stop.
"I can't bring the same stock to Morocco, for example. If I did, it would be a disaster.
"Over there they don't like English. It's French first, then Arabic and then English."
Mr Mohammed called book fairs in the region "a circuit", and said that a lot of the publishers meet up after hours to blow off steam in a nearby restaurant or cafe.
Which is just as well, as a 12-hour working day spent listening to computer-generated children's voices singing the alphabet in Arabic and English must require superhuman endurance skills.
"You learn to tune out," said Mr Mohammed dryly.
One man who never gets to tune out the noise is the festival interpreter, Shaker Hasan from Iraq.
He translated when Saad Sowayan, a Saudi professor of anthropology, dazzled the audience with his talk as part of the Discussion Sofa series.
"It is lucky for this man that I studied and taught English literature and history so the things he was speaking about I understood," laughed Mr Hasan.
Mr Sowayan provided a sweeping history of Saudi Arabia and how some of its pre-Islamic Bedouin practices had their roots in Greek mythology.
He and other authors were treated like rock stars. A capacity crowd showed up to the workshop on political writing by the Palestinian journalist and author Abdel Bari Atwan.
Afterwards, he had a constant stream of admirers following him, asking for autographs, pictures and, in one case, a quick hug.
"It's different when you are in festivals in the west," he mused. "Yes, over there they are very interested and respectful but over here you really feel the love. When I come to a place like this, I feel like I am with my people."