Emirati and Greek literary legacies celebrated in culture swap at Thessaloniki Book Fair

Centuries after great thinkers from Arab and European history laid groundwork for human ingenuity, Sharjah and Greek delegates meet to strengthen their legacy

Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi and Greece Deputy Minister for Culture Christos Dimas at the Sharjah pavilion, which aims to share Emirati and Arab culture with visitors to the fair. Photo: @sharjahbookauthority / Instagram
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The UAE’s publishing industry is centre stage at the Thessaloniki International Book Fair, where Sharjah is the guest of honour.

The emirate is the first Arab city or country to be awarded the status at the fair, which marks its 20th year. A large contingent of Emirati authors and publishers travelled to the port city to showcase their works and seal publishing deals with Greek counterparts. Leading the delegation is Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, chairwoman of the Sharjah Book Authority, who, during the opening ceremony, described the relationship between the UAE and Greece as the fruit of an ancient legacy.

“We're not just representatives of our respective nations, we are also custodians of a shared human story," she said. "I can't help but imagine the delight of our great ancestors, Aristotle and Muhammad Al Khwarizmi, witnessing this gathering here today. Centuries ago, these remarkable figures, one, a pioneer of Greek philosophy and the other, a founding father of Arabic and Muslim mathematics, laid the groundwork for knowledge that continues to illuminate our world today.

“We, as the inheritors of this ancient legacy, are the proud descendants who cherish the knowledge and understanding that they fostered in Greece and the Arab world, both rich and influential ancient civilisations.”

Greece's Deputy Minister for Culture Christos Dimas tells The National that Sharjah's participation at the fair is a launch pad for further cultural initiatives between Thessaloniki and the emirate.

"We should start considering more collaborations such as creating a sister city relationship and a way to create stronger links between museums in both cities," he adds. "The participation in both of our international book fairs, and I can confirm that Greece will return with its pavilion to the Sharjah book fair later in the year, is an important vehicle to start that process.”

Located in the centre of the book fair, the vast Sharjah Pavilion hosts nearly a dozen of the emirate’s publishers and cultural organisations. These include the Sharjah Department of Culture, publishers Kalimat Group, the emirate’s mega library the House of Wisdom and the Emirates Publishers Association. The latter’s president, Abdullah Al Kaabi, says the fair marks one of the rare instances where UAE and Greek publishers get together to discuss trade.

“There hasn’t been a lot of attention by Greek publishers to Emirati literature and this has a lot to do with commercial reasons,” he says. "It’s always easier to translate English and other major languages. We all know that there are a lot of similarities when it comes to both Greek and Arabic cultures so it's all about finding that opportunity and dedicated space to build those bridges. This is why book fairs are important and I am confident Emirati publishers will leave Greece with some agreements and opportunities.”

Al Kaabi says there is no specific strategy regarding which Emirati titles or genres the association plans to press upon their Greek counterparts. “It’s more about showcasing the breadth and diversity of our literature, whether it's novels, poetry or history books,” he says.

“From my experiences travelling to book fairs from Italy, China and South Korea, the more local the content the better the reception. Publishers are not coming to the Sharjah pavilion at these book fairs for general Arabic literature, they instead want Emirati stories.”

Emirati authors also have the potential to introduce readers to innovative forms of literature, notes Emirati poet Nujoom Al Ghanem ahead of the launch of the Greek translation of her latest Arabic poetry collection, The Sea and Horizon in a Narrow Passage.

Inspired by Zen philosophy, the book's elegiac poems form languid meditations on life, nature and urbanism. "We are here in this place that is responsible for creating concepts of philosophy, humanism, ethics, aesthetics and history," she says. "So we are dealing with very cultured people here and I am pleased that I am presenting a different type of poetry that people may not expect from authors from our part of the world."

UAE ambassador to Greece, Ali Obaid Al Dhaheri, says these kinds of dynamic cultural exchange will ensure the relationship between both countries remains in good stead. "I am very proud of the depth of the relationship and how it is built on a foundation of mutual interest," he says. "Based on these friendly relations, we have been able to diversify it from governmental and economic ties to now include culture which is just as important."

With Air Arabia set to launch direct flights from Sharjah to Athens next month, Sheikha Budour says culture lovers from both countries don't have to wait that long to make that journey to Greece or the UAE.

“The distance between Thessaloniki and Sharjah is 4,659km and while it may seem vast there is also a beautiful truth to consider,” she says. “Did you know you can travel this entire distance in just two minutes? That's the average time it takes an adult to read one page. So reading about each other's cultures, even one page a day, will help us embark on a journey of understanding that transcends any physical borders and brings us closer together.”

Updated: May 21, 2024, 1:04 PM