Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is a magnet for culture and history buffs

The annual event returns to the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre

Abu Dhabi International Book Fair has inspired UAE book lovers for over 40 years. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National
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After visiting the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair for over a decade, I have learnt to come early and keep my eyes open.

This is not only to spot some of the new majestic stands appearing at every edition, nor the copies of vintage National Geographic and Zahrat Al Khaleej magazines available for sale at nondescript stalls.

Seasoned attendees would agree that the opening days of the book fair is when some cultural personalities quietly come out to shop and browse the vast space at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.

This year’s opening day is no different and I am rewarded with some wonderful encounters with a superstar comic author and an award-winning filmmaker.

Running from Monday to Sunday, the set up for this year’s book fair is at once cohesive and dynamic.

The pavilions are unofficially grouped together in terms of stature and themes.

Upon entering the main gate at Hall 6, you are greeted with a sparkling stand of Turkey – the book fair’s guest of honour.

The two-part pavilion, organised by the country’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism, is modern with crisp white and wooden walls home to couches, work stations and a cosy events space.

Flanking the site are an array of UAE cultural organisations and government agencies.

Some of the classic books available at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Photo: Antonie Robertson / The National

Delving deeper into the hall, I find myself among hundreds of historical and eye-wateringly expensive works.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is once again a magnet for sellers and collectors of antique books.

Taking centre stage this year is Dubai’s Mohammed Bin Rashid Library, which used the occasion to showcase selected books from its in-house Treasures of the Library collection.

These include some colourful pop culture artefacts such as 1931’s The Adventures of Mickey Mouse by Walt Disney and a first edition of 1997’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling. The blockbuster tale of the young sorcerer is valued at nearly a million dollars online.

Also available at the fair is the epic leather-bound 17th century nautical atlas by Hunter Jaillot and Pierre Mortier, valued at €450,000 and available at the spacious pavilion of Austrian booksellers Inlibris. It is advertised as the most expensive atlas of its kind.

The book fair is also a hub for collectors of a more modern art form.

At the stand of Emirati comic book studio Sandstorm, I spot none other than Brian Michael Bendis, the American author and illustrator behind the Ultimate Spider Man comic book series.

In the city for another engagement, Bendis tells me he visited the book fair to engage with Emirati comic book lovers and aspiring authors.

“I always believed that the more personal the story is to you, the more universal it actually becomes,” he says.

“It is kind of counter-intuitive if you really think about it, but this has been the case throughout my career.

“I have written many of the Spider Man comics at home in Cleveland, Ohio, where I spoke about my experiences, and it has resonated as far as this beautiful city of Abu Dhabi.

“I think this part of the world has so many great stories to tell us and I encourage authors here to go and tell their truths.”

Indeed, the region is not wanting for inspiration.

As part of its annual programming, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair pays tribute to a particular historical or modern culture figure.

Visitors on the first day of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair held at ADNEC in Abu Dhabi. Photo: Pawan Singh / The National

This year it is Ibn Khaldoun.

It is at the interactive pavilion dedicated to the 14th century Arab sociologist and philosopher that I meet a keen student of Emirati history.

Fresh from premiering his elegiac documentary on UAE Founding Father, the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, at the Cairo International Book Fair in January, director Nasser Al Dhaheri is once again searching for inspiration.

“History has always been a passion of mine and the Abu Dhabi book fair to me is a piece of UAE and my personal history,” he says.

“Did you know I went to the first book fair back in 1981? It was a small place held near what is now the Cultural Foundation and it was just a series of tents with books everywhere.

“So I come here nearly every year and it reminds me of how far we have come. The book fair always makes me proud and happy.”

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair will take place from May 22 to 28. More information is available on adbookfair.com

Updated: May 22, 2023, 3:24 PM