Oasis of Books

Shoppers at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

It was Saturday night in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Women in black abayas and headscarves, children in tow, and men in flowing white dishdashas were wandering the aisles of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, eager to spend their dirhams. As a Western observer, I was intrigued to enter a realm very different from  the more regimented fairs such as Book Expo America or The Frankfurt Book Fair, where publishers  display their upcoming titles to booksellers and do rights business as well. For the Arab countries, in contrast, the book fair is predominantly a way to distribute reading materials directly to the buying populace.

And more shoppers….

In a part of the world with relatively few bookstores, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is a rich, often colorful literary marketplace. The major wares this year were religious books (everything from Muslim philosophy tomes to versions of the Qur’an and even Qur’an challenge games), children’s titles, and textbooks—with some fiction, biographies of iconic regional leaders and other non-fiction interspersed. While there has been a significant recent push to nurture and reward Arab innovators and thinkers (and even digital formats) through the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, shifting to a more Western publishing model has been a challenge. There are only a handful of literary agents in the Arab countries, one online book retailer, and virtually no e-book penetration. Most publishers sell their titles by following the book fair route, including fairs in Beirut, Cairo, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi.

Books on display at the fair

Now, however, the rulers of Abu Dhabi are determined not only to modernize the literary scene, but also to turn the emirate into a cultural oasis. The Crown Prince has invited New York University to create NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), a complete liberal arts and research university that will attract the world’s most elite students and scholars.  NYUAD will welcome its first class next fall in its temporary space, and the new campus will open on Saadiyat Island (“happiness” in Arabic), not far from planned branches of the Louvre and Guggenheim museums.

Eager to nurture not only learning but also literacy on all levels, the Abu Dhabi government established a sophisticated book fair by creating KITAB (Arabic for “book”), a joint venture of The Frankfurt Book Fair and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH).  In the last few years, KITAB has worked hard to expand the fair’s offerings and reach. The 2010 fair boasted a flourishing business and rights center (any publisher buying licenses for deals to and from the Arabic language could apply for a government subsidy of up to $1000 towards these rights),  author readings, a poetry forum, a cooking show, and a book signing corner. In the “e-zone,” a massive Kodak POD machine spewed out finished books for publishers who didn’t want to bring multiple copies of their titles to the fair. The expanded “professional program” included seminars on topics like “E-Book Formats, Rights and Digital Rights Management” and “How Not to Become a Dinosaur: Future Challenges and Opportunities for Publishers in the Digital Age.”

School outing at the book fair

At the fair, the mood was decidedly upbeat as groups of school children arrived to spend the more than $1 million dollars in vouchers the government handed out to educational institutions to encourage children to not just look but buy. Publishers from most of the 22 Arab countries as well as from France, the U.S., England, Germany and other nations were on hand buying, selling, and amiably working the room.

Rania Zaghir, of Al-Khayyat Al-Saghir, a children’s book publishing company

One of my favorites was Rania Zaghir, a spirited woman from Beirut, Lebanon, who not only writes her own children’s books but also publishes them (and other books) through her company Al-Khayyat Al-Saghir. Her sense of whimsy and her panache were evident on her book covers and in her ebullient spirit. “Arab publishing is so behind the times,” she complained. “You can’t do this. You can’t do that. You can’t put pigs in books. Of course I will put pigs in books and on covers. I love pigs. They create buzz,” she said.

Another memorable meeting was with Ibrahim Anas Al-Rajab, director of Baghdad’s Al-Muthanna Library. Ibrahim, the third generation in a legendary family of Baghdad booksellers, came to the fair with his brother and recounted how on August 20, 1999, the family’s Al-Muthanna bookstore, at the time the biggest in Iraq, went up in flames. Today, the family business has been rebuilt on the same site and now serves primarily as a book supplier exporting Iraqi books to foreign universities and libraries. Asked whether he was interested in the book fair’s seminars on e-publishing and marketing on the internet, he looked at me and said: “We still do not have electricity many hours of the day. People buy laptops for extra hours of work time because of the battery life. We are a long way from e-books.”

So, from daring to put pigs on the cover to struggling to stay in business in heartbreaking conditions, publishers at the fair represented a wide range of viewpoints and practices. I quickly came to admire their courage, their eagerness to use the book fair to bring their titles to as wide an audience as possible, and their emerging business savvy. The 2011 Abu Dhabi Book Fair, scheduled for March 22-27th, promises to offer even more 21st century strategies for publishing progress. Will it eventually help transform Abu Dhabi into the cultural oasis of the Middle East? As they say in the region, “Inshallah,” or God willing.

by Andrea Chambers

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