40th Sharjah International Book Fair is a charged return to in-person programming

The 11-day event includes workshops, theatre, dance and music performances as well as talks by 85 of the world’s leading literary figures

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Last year’s Sharjah International Book Fair will always be remembered for its resolve. The event adopted a hybrid format as a way of adapting to the pandemic. With global travel restrictions in place, most authors could not travel to the UAE, and talks and panel discussions took place almost exclusively in a virtual setting.

A stringent registration system was put in place at the Expo Centre Sharjah, which meant the venue filled to only a fraction of its capacity. Booksellers were as abundant as ever, but their collections were noticeably more anemic than in previous years.

Walking through the fair’s decked but empty halls, you couldn’t help thinking that although the Covid-19 measures and public hesitance were warranted, the fair had lost some of its charm.

That isn’t the case this year, however.

The SIBF, taking place until November 13, has reprised an engaging in-person programme held under the theme, There's always a right book.

The 11-day event will include workshops, theatre, dance and music performances as well as talks by 85 of the world’s leading literary figures – including Nobel Prize winner Abdulrazak Gurnah and Jnanpith Award-winner Amitav Ghosh. Guest writers and literary talents will be appearing at the fair in person, and will be holding dedicated book signing sessions.

The fair’s assured return to an in-person programme seems to have resonated with the public, as crowds gathered at the Expo Centre to mark the fair’s opening day. In contrast to last year, the change of atmosphere is striking. Even nostalgic.

Though you will still need to wear a mask to attend the free event, there are no registration prerequisites or a Covid-19 test screening process.

The first thing you’ll probably notice after arriving is the abundance of food offerings. Food trucks and snack bars are to be found at the entrance, where groups of friends, families and booksellers gather over coffee. The bustle is a welcome sight.

The fair has become, again, as much of a gastronomic experience as a literary one – bringing back a popular element of the event that had to be put on hold last year. The fair’s Cookery Corner will once again be offering live cooking masterclasses by world-renowned chefs and restaurateurs, including MasterChef India judge Kunal Kapur, and Korean Food made Simple writer and host Judy Joo.

More than 1,500 publishers from 81 countries are participating in this year’s fair. This is the highest number since the SIBF was established in 1982, and the fact is immediately felt.

The centre's halls have become a friendly labyrinth of booksellers and publishers. Each stall gives a glimpse of the literary landscape of its respective country. Cameroon, Colombia, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania, Uganda and Zimbabwe are all participating in the fair for the first time.

Spain, the Guest of Honour this year, has a sprawling pavilion at the venue, featuring towering prints of some of its most notable architecture and holding significant stock of Spanish and translated books. The pavilion will also be offering “micro courses” in Spanish and a workshop led by Javier Gomez Santander and Diego Avalos, writers of the popular Netflix show Money Heist.

With more than 440 cultural events scheduled for the fair this year, trying to keep track of its offerings can be a dizzying venture. The Sharjah Book Authority, the fair’s organiser, has launched the SIBF app to help visitors navigate and make the most of the event.

Downloading the app is almost a requirement if you’re visiting the fair as it will give you access to its programme, as well as a list of exhibitors.

While sifting through the varied collections on offer is its own rewarding experience, the app helps you browse through the titles more efficiently, providing detailed information on where you can find a particular book. It is also helpful to keep track of session timings.

The 40th SIBF is a charged comeback for the event after a disruptive year. Online talks and panel discussions were a cultural lifeline during a year of restrictions on movement and social distancing, but they offered only one facet of the book fair experience.

This year's SIBF is a reminder of what the other facets are – the joys of being in a book-loving crowd, hearing recommendations, recitations and criticisms. To have the opportunity to meet some of today’s leading literary minds in person, to taste a dish from a cuisine you’ve never explored before, to avoid tripping over the children that dash in your steps, and to promise yourself, again, you’ll become a more disciplined reader.

Updated: November 10, 2021, 5:13 AM