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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Sharjah International Book Fair: nearly 40 years on, the objective remains to foster a love of reading

Books remain the DNA of our civilisation and the exchange of ideas

A visitor browses books at the Sharjah International Book / Satish Kumar 
A visitor browses books at the Sharjah International Book / Satish Kumar 

As a student, I attended the very first Sharjah International Book Fair in 1982. I remember walking between the tents with two or three purchases in hand, which made me feel invincible. Nearly four decades on, I will be back at the event and wandering the aisles this week, only now it is in my role as chairman of the organisers, Sharjah Book Authority.

It would be safe to say that the first edition of the fair set the precedent and crystallised its very nature. The objective was, is and always will be, to continue to foster a love of reading and a passion for exchange.

Events in the publishing world were created to generate enthusiasm for reading. In attaining this goal, the book fair holds a special significance and always will. Today the UAE holds three major book fairs and is pushing the region forward in terms of reading.

SIBF began with a handful of publishers. Not many people know that in the first edition of the fair, Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi bought all the books. He had a vision of opening people’s minds by giving them access to more books.

These intentions were enough to lay the foundations for arguably the region’s most memorable literary event – and certainly the longest-standing. Looking back on our humble beginnings, it seems like a dream recounting the book fair’s 37-year journey and achievements, which make it the third largest event of its kind in the world with more than 1.5 million visitors and sales of more than $50 million.

If this annual book fair is any guide to the eagerness of people in the UAE to read and take part in social events, it would be safe to say that culture is growing more vibrant every year. We host millions of visitors annually, who walk through the gates to meet their favourite authors, browse millions of titles covering nearly 200 languages and buy the books they have selected.

SIBF is a great mirror for trends in reading. For some years, there has been a swing towards fiction; during others, there has been a massive uptake of books on educational and life skills. I remember people coming to look for new editions of old books they had read years ago. People get attached to the first books they read and for specific styles of writing but a love of classic novels has been constant and unshakeable through the years.

Year after year, books are being sold at a faster pace, the number of readers is increasing locally and regionally, and the book fair has become an epicentre of reading and cultural appreciation. Of course, many other cultural events and concerted efforts by various entities across the emirate have also done a lot to encourage readers, writers and artists in the UAE and the region. They have been pivotal to the growing popularity of books and reading in the country.

Undoubtedly, SIBF is a premier marketplace for the publishing industry in the Middle East and North Africa, a vital event for negotiating the sales of rights and licensing and part of our efforts to become a major global destination of the publishing world. Commercial aspirations are, however, only a small slice of the pie.

That is because our vision and purpose for this annual cultural feast has been defined by the Ruler of Sharjah, a scholar, author and an avid reader, who wants to see future generations grow up with a similar passion for books and culture. His keenness to create a strong reading community and promote its benefits, especially among children, are the driving force behind the unique nature of the fair.

I joined the Sharjah Book Authority after spending years at the Department of Culture and Information in Sharjah. I found myself immersed in a wonderful and progressive literary universe the minute I assumed responsibility as chairman. I am a true believer in the saying that “your job shapes our identity”, in one way or another.

Mine has helped me discover my true self. The world of literature is such an emotive one that one cannot see it as purely business.

I am proud to contribute to both the emirate and the nation’s collective passion to make books and reading available to all and to build a knowledge-based society and economy through the free exchange of ideas and interests, as well as strengthening the publishing landscape in the UAE through SIBF. The book fair has done a great deal to shed a spotlight on local publishers and emerging authors, not only through SIBF’s literary awards but by offering them specialised training and know-how. Most importantly, the book fair is now a place where the industry converges together and there are ample opportunities to network with each other.

These efforts are all heading in the right direction as we experience a year-on-year increase in the participation of local authors, self-published writers and independent publishers, who benefit greatly from the increased visibility for their existing and upcoming projects, as well as a rise in book sales.

In the past few years, the publishing industry worldwide has been through many transitions, thanks to the rise of digital books and e-readers. Book fairs not only in Sharjah and the UAE but around the world have anchored the industry through these times, pushing it forward and creating new markets for readers.

We are hugely excited to have the book fair return for another year. As we open the gates to our 37th annual fair, we eagerly anticipate hundreds of thousands pouring in from schools, universities, places of work and communities across the seven emirates of the UAE, as well as from neighbouring countries, to once again come together and savour this memorable cultural feast. We are celebrating Japan in a big way this year; the culturally rich nation is bringing a rich programme of events to the book fair and will be celebrated as our guest of honour.

Books remain the DNA of our civilisation and the exchange of ideas, by its very nature, is a communal activity. For lovers of the written word, the book fair is, and always will be, full of allure. That makes SIBF an unmissable cultural attraction.

Ahmed Al Ameri is the chairman of Sharjah Book Authority, which runs the Sharjah International Book Fair