The charm of Abu Dhabi International Book Fair: why I've been going for the past 11 years

There is a lot to discover at the event, if you are prepared to make the effort

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A major feature distinguishing book fairs from literary festivals is a sense of discovery.

With the latter being a more static experience largely consisting of sessions featuring bestselling authors, a book fair packs the X factor of hundreds of international publishers, authors and booksellers on site promoting their work.

That alchemy of creativity, collaboration, networking and trade not only gives each international, regional or, in the case of the UAE’s Abu Dhabi and Sharjah events, local book fairs their own flavour, it also ensures each annual staging is not the same.

Scroll through the gallery above to see images of the 2022 Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

This is why visiting the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair — which I've been doing for the past 11 years — never gets old. There are always new authors to meet and the opportunity to reconnect with seasoned booksellers returning with fresh stock.

The key to unlocking such an engrossing experience is an open mind and closed feet. The blisters of past years have taught me that walking 11,000 steps in presumably comfortable sandals is no match for regular trainers. Put them on and get lost within the labyrinth of stalls and walkways of the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre because you will never know what you may find or who you may meet.

A blast from the past

Mohamed Suleiman from Dar Al Fadeela Bookshop. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

It is during these sojourns that I spot the chaotic Dar Al Fadeela Bookshop.

The messy mix of vintage Arabic newspapers, magazines and novels strewn across the site is part of the charm. Specialising in literary material from the past 100 years, Dar Al Fadeela Bookshop, which has branches in Dubai and Ajman, wants baby boomers and those who grew up in the '80s to spend hours in the stand on a treasure hunt to find a cherished magazine or newspapers from their youth.

Realising I work for an English-language newspaper, Egyptian manager Mohamed Suleiman’s eyes light up.

Rummaging through a shelf of magazines, he uncovers a 1956 edition of National Geographic magazine. At its heart is an article on the UAE during its Trucial States era, with a large section dedicated to what is now Al Shindagha Historical District.

“What we do is normally buy other book shops and collections in bulk with the hope of finding something special,” Suleiman says. “When we found this we were excited. It has to be one of the first major magazine articles about the UAE.”

This 1956 edition of National Geographic magazine from Dar Al Fadeela Bookshop includes a feature on the UAE's Trucial States era. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

Nearby, Christoph Auvermann of French antiquarian booksellers Librairie Clavreuil possibly possesses one of the oldest books in the country.

"Well, it’s more a music manuscript than a book,” he says. “It was written by German monks in 1450. It is made out of the skin of a young calf and it is full of scores that monks can chant between their days of prayer."

The eye-watering price tag of €350,000 ($376,000) is also a cause for reflection, but Auverman is confident he can find a buyer in Abu Dhabi.

Christoph Auvermann from Librairie Clavreuil displays a 15th-century book of hymns he hopes to sell at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

“This is quite niche but it is also something of great importance and value for those truly interested in the arts,” he says. “It is a great piece of artwork. You place this in the middle of the room on its stand and I guarantee it will be a conversation-starter.”

For the new generation

But it's not only old books and collector's items at the fair. A new generation of authors with tales of our time are also present.

I find Kande Summers, 13, the British-born Jamaican author at the Black Books Collective stand. Since launching at the 2020 Sharjah International Book Fair with Summer's debut futuristic novel Going Home, the organisation has grown to promote racially inclusive literature by international authors.

Regarding her intergalactic tale of young teenager finding her way back to Earth, Summers has written a story she and hopefully others can identify with.

Author Kande Summers, 13, is showcasing her works at the Black Book Collective stand at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Khushnum Bhandari / The National

"It is really important to me because growing up the things I saw and read had people that didn't look like me," she says. "So now that I am in a position to influence others around me, I want to write a story that is fun to read and also make people who look like me feel more comfortable with themselves.”

The Black Books Collective's small collection of titles pales in comparison to the heaving shelves of novels at Booktopia. But look a little bit closer and that perceived breadth of options gradually dissipates.

Booktopia may be packed with books, but there are often many copies of the same title or several books by one author. The shelf behind the section's manager, Balaji Vadivel, is stacked with nearly 50 novels by 20th-century adventure author Clive Cussler.

“Some people do like him very much,” Vadivel says, before admitting that most of the titles are excess stock from the shop's Dubai Festival City branch.

At Dh20 a pop, though, I grab myself a couple of novels by James Ellroy and Nick Hornby in preparation for a future holiday.

My dreams of that beach getaway are temporarily shattered, however, when strolling by the Horus International Publishing House.

I can’t take my eyes off the main book stand, home to a series of Arabic children's books filled with graphic photos of spiders, ranging from a tarantula to the killer redback.

A book of spiders from the Horus International Publishing House at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Saeed Saeed / The National

“The kids love these. It is our bestseller and part of a series that also includes dinosaurs and monkeys,” an attendant says.

Once again, the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair never fails to deliver.

The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs until Sunday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. More information is available at adbookfair.com

Updated: May 27, 2022, 8:05 AM
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