Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 12 November 2019

Book fair cements Sharjah's status as a beacon of culture

The emirate is celebrating the power of the written word at its annual 11-day international exhibition

The Sharjah International Book Fair provides the ideal opportunity to inspire children to read books. Leslie Pableo for The National
The Sharjah International Book Fair provides the ideal opportunity to inspire children to read books. Leslie Pableo for The National

“I read a book one day and my whole life was changed.” So begins Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk in his novel The New Life. Pamuk was in the UAE this week for the 38th annual Sharjah International Book Fair, a convergence of more than 170 thinkers, philosophers, authors and political figures, from 77 countries, meeting over 11 days to discuss the books and themes that shape our lives and resonate most today. More than two million visitors are expected to attend those talks and more than 1,800 activities will be held to celebrate Sharjah’s status as a beacon of culture, in an event nearly as old as the UAE itself.

Book fairs are useful for a number of reasons. Aside from inculcating the important habit of reading among people of all age groups, especially children, they serve as temporary repositories for a wide variety of books – often at discounted prices – that might not ordinarily be available online or in stores. They provide a much-needed platform for authors, publishers, distributors, retailers and consumers to interact with one another. And to cater to shorter attention spans, modern-day fairs – such as the one at the Sharjah Expo Centre – offer many attractions, including a range of cultural activities, seminars, discussions and the rare opportunity to meet one’s heroes and favourite authors, from Mark Manson to Jeet Thayil, and from Steve Harvey to Robin Sharma. This is a rare opportunity to be a fly on the wall in discussions between those who influence us most or give us food for thought, and it should be grasped with both hands.

Abu Dhabi and Dubai might attract more headlines globally but to those in the know, or who live in the Emirates, the understated charms and attractions of Sharjah stand it in good stead as a cultural epicentre – one that has rightfully earned its place as the Unesco Cultural Capital of the Arab World in 1998 and this year’s Book Capital of the World. The emirate plays an integral role in shaping the future of the country and the surrounding region. Its book fair, which kicked off on Wednesday, should inspire everyone to pay a visit and browse the 1.6m books on display. Most crucially, it should remind us of the importance of reading and cultivating our minds in an age where the frenetic pace of life and short attention spans, as we are constantly distracted by digital devices, threaten to tear us away from more cerebral pursuits. Reading, after all, helps one grow mentally, emotionally and psychologically, while broadening one's imagination and enhancing creativity.

The scale of the Sharjah fair is truly jawdropping: it is expected to house more than 1,800 exhibitors and features hundreds of activities in the largest event of its kind in the Middle East. In a complex region that is often misunderstood, it projects a theatre of intellectual debate to the outside world and allows those within it to engage in meaningful conversations about the events and issues affecting them most, as we will be exploring through our recently launched podcast series Books of My Life.

Sharjah has many traits that make it a cultural hub attracting voices from around the region – and the world. Home to the UAE’s oldest airport, as well as a rich array of heritage sites, museums, souqs and art galleries, it remains a vibrant, beating heart of philosophical and cultural debate within the region and the rest of the world, while managing to balance the traditional with the modern. The pace of life might be slower than in the more populous cities of the UAE but it serves as the lungs of the country – literally and metaphorically. As Nigerian author Nnamdi Ehirim told The National: “Good literature is not created in isolation.” The same could be said of the contrasting pleasures of the different emirates of the UAE.

Updated: November 5, 2019 09:08 AM

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