My UAE: A story of success with Sharjah book fair visionary Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri
Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri is surely the man of the moment in the Gulf literary world. As chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, he’s overseeing one of the most exciting literary events in the region – the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), which finishes Saturday, November 12.
Having hosted celebrity authors such as Jeffrey Archer and Dan Brown in previous years, this year guests include Indian Nobel Peace Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi, Star Wars author Claudia Gray, Eric Van Lustbader of the Jason Bourne novels, Malayalam superstar Mammootty and Australian author-screenwriter Graeme Simsion. The event’s numbers are mind-boggling, too. It has seen the participation of 1,420 publishing houses from 60 countries, with more than 1.5 million books on display.
Al Ameri says it’s precisely this diversity that attracts more than a million visitors to what is essentially an 11-day literary carnival.
“We have transformed it from being only a book fair selling books to a place that everybody likes to come and sit. We try to be as multicultural as it can get. Now it is among the three top book fairs around the world.”
In his former position as SIBF director, Al Ameri is largely credited for its growth and acclaim. But he puts the success down to the vision of Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah. He also credits the rise of the fair to a combination of factors, including securing big names, reaching out to schoolchildren and catering to the huge expat community in the UAE.
“We are planning continuously by listening to people because, at the end of the day, my customer is the consumer,” he says. “We also grow through the communities living here, like our Indian cultural programme is getting very strong. We have the Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi this year; we have Google’s Gopi Kallayil; [Indian politician] Shashi Tharoor. We bring Bollywood actors. This year, we have Shilpa Shetty and Shatrughan Sinha. The Filipino programme is also becoming big.
“We have big names from everywhere – Americans, British, Japanese, Chinese, Russian and even Serbian. We are also one of the pioneers in opening the book fair until 11pm, sometimes midnight.”
Having studied at Strayer College in Washington, Al Ameri holds a degree in business administration. He then did an executive master’s in business administration from the University of Sharjah. Al Ameri has worked for the book fair for 18 years. Before becoming director, he was head of finance and administrative affairs at the Department of Culture and Information in Sharjah, a post he held for more than 10 years.
Now he heads the SBA, which has jurisdiction over cultural projects including SIBF, Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, the Sharjah Publishing City, Sharjah’s public libraries and the Sharjah International Book Fair Translation Grant.
One challenge the SBA aims to overcome is the absence of distribution companies in the Arab world that cover the entire Middle East, Al Ameri explains.
He’s also the face of the book fair, representing it at several international book fairs.
“We participate in over 30 book fairs around the world, from Asia to South America to North America to Europe to Africa – we cover the whole world,” he says. “We have become an ambassador for our publishers and authors. We have changed people’s perceptions. We have put the UAE’s name in every school in the US by partnering with the American Library Association. The only ALA conference held outside the US is in Sharjah.”
The SBA lays a lot of importance on translation, with a grant of US$1,500 (Dh5,510) for children’s books and $4,000 for other titles. “It is for translating from any language to any language. You’ll find books being translated to Malayalam, to Chinese, to Polish, German ... we look at the wider picture,” says Al Ameri. “Translation is not only translating words, you’re translating civilisations, you’re translating communities, you’re translating ideologies.”
What’s the last book you read?
Perfume by German writer Patrick Süskind.
Who are your favourite authors?
That’s very hard to answer. I read a lot – at least one book every month. I read about business, religion, I even read the Old Testament sometimes, I read everything. But most importantly, as a Muslim, I read the Quran always. Islam has taught us something very important – to know about people, to use your mind to be open and learn about different cultures, about different languages. So I don’t have any one favourite author.
It’s the 35th SIBF this year. Do you have any early memories of the book fair?
I remember the first book fair. I think it was located next to where the King Faisal Mosque is now. I remember walking there through the tents – I think I was in Grade 3 – seeing books all around. I bought a few books as well. It is a good memory.
What places in Sharjah should visitors see?
The amazing thing about Sharjah is that it is becoming a cultural hub. When you come to Sharjah, you find something unique – the buildings are more cultural, there are more open spaces. One must visit Heart of Sharjah, Mleiha Archaeological Centre, the Majaz Waterfront and the many museums.
What food do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy anything that’s delicious. I’ll try anything and that’s something I experience through my travels. I eat Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Indian. I enjoy spicy food. Food is culture in itself and you learn from different cultures.
What do you love most about your job?
The best thing about my job is that I experience different cultures, different people. Every day I meet different people from different nations, different languages, different religions. And it gives one knowledge that cannot be found anywhere else.
In a world full of video games, tablets and smartphones, how do you encourage your children to read?
I tell them, you want to play video game, fine with me, but first read for me. You want to play two hours, give me two hours of reading, then you can play two hours. If you teach them right from early childhood the importance of reading, they will love reading and will keep reading.
Is the rest of your family passionate about books?
Yes, all my family loves books. My children, my wife. I have a good library in my house, which is very important.
Between your numerous job responsibilities, when do you get the time to read?
The airplane is the best place to read; while waiting at airports around the world; sometimes in the car if it is a long ride.
What is your all-time favourite film?
There are many films, but The Godfather is unique.
Updated: November 8, 2016 04:00 AM