The Al Ain Book Fair has returned, taking place on a scale and energy indicative of the city’s desire for a major literary get-together.
The city has not hosted an event of this kind since the pandemic struck in 2019. While book fairs and festivals have since been held around the country – namely in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Sharjah – Al Ain has been biding its time.
With a sprawling new pavilion in the shadow of the Zayed Central Library, Abu Dhabi’s garden city is now holding the biggest iteration of the book fair in its 12-year history. Taking place until September 30, the fair brings together more than 100 local publishing houses as well as dozens of leading figures from the UAE's academic and literary scene.
Panel discussions on heritage, literature, poetry and art are among fair’s highlights, with speakers that include Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, cultural adviser to the President of the UAE and chancellor of UAE University, Saeed Al Nazari, director general of the Federal Youth Authority, and Isobel Abulhoul, chief executive and trustee of the Emirates Literature Foundation.
“We have designed events that celebrate our 50 years of cultural heritage and the talented authors and poets behind this heritage,” said Ali bin Tamim, chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre.
“We shall also highlight our glorious present and the emerging talents destined to enlighten the next 50 years. In offering such a rich and extraordinary experience, we hope to encourage the enthusiasm for culture in the community, especially as we return to our normal way of life after the pandemic.”
Stringent coronavirus-related measures have been enforced in the exhibition space. Visitor numbers inside the exhibition halls and pavilions are limited to avoid overcrowding. To attend, an electronic access card must be obtained, either through the website or the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair's smartphone app.
Visitors above the age of 16 must have received two doses of a Covid-19 vaccination to enter. Those above 12 must present a negative PCR test result taken in the past 48 hours as well.
Organisers have also set up a concentrated digital front to make the fair accessible to those who are unable or hesitant to visit in person. This includes streamable talks as well as a sales platform launched by the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, part of the Department of Culture and Tourism – Abu Dhabi.
The platform gives readers the chance to remotely browse the fair’s collections and buy books from participating booksellers. Books will be delivered throughout the UAE through the Tawzea distribution service.
Between the new venue, busy programme and concentrated digital presence, booksellers and participants say they are feeling optimistic about the fair’s comeback, hoping it will not only offer some respite from Covid-related market pains but also reinvigorate the community spirit that revolves around the written word.
“It’s been almost two years since the last book fair was held in Al Ain,” says Sayed Abdel Monem, a bookseller from the Bait Al Kutub publishing house in Dubai. “People here are eager for an event of this kind.”
Abdel Monem says the venue’s spacious hallways and strict health measures will help visitors feel safe while they peruse the fair’s offerings.
Ahmed Alsayed, a bookseller at Al Naif Library in Ajman, says though he’s been participating at the fair for its past four iterations, he feels a novel excitement about this year.
“The space is wonderful,” he says. “We’re looking forward to what the next week will bring. It’s events like these that show us how necessary the written word is to our everyday lives. A large part of book sales have come from online in the past two years, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but there's something beautiful about coming to a place like this."
And it isn’t only the booksellers who feel that way. Artist Vern Brown, who has been living in Dubai for eight years, is a frequent participant in the country’s fairs and exhibitions. His work, which uses a variety of mediums from acrylic to pastel, charcoal and oil paints, features a blend of pop culture and scenes from around the country.
In one, Elliott and ET from the 1982 Steven Spielberg film ET the Extra-Terrestrial are cycling towards the moon hanging above Dubai’s downtown skyline. In another, camels are sitting on the back of a Toyota Hilux pickup, surveying the palm trees passing by.
“It’s good to be back,” Brown says. He says he participated in the fair in its last three iterations and is glad to see some familiar faces again.
“I have something for everyone,” he says. “I also hold workshops, where people can just grab a chair and draw with me.”
Artist Sally Alhashmi, who is from Al Ain, has participated in a number of fairs in the past, including the Middle East Film & Comic Con in Dubai. However, taking part in an exhibition in her home town has been “a dream come true”.
“I’ve always wanted to see my name on one of the booth signs at the fair,” she says. “It’s a very nice feeling.”
Alhasmi paints familiar pop culture characters with Arabic phrases on almost any material she can find, from tote bags to T-shirts, canvases and mugs. She has a painting of the Pokemon Charmander decorating a suitcase and No-Face from Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 Oscar-winning film Spirited Away, as a badge pin.
“I like channelling my creativity through the different objects,” she says.
Al Ain Book Fair runs until Thursday, September 30 at the Zayed Central Library. Entry is free but preregistration is required at adbookfair.com