How Sharjah became the go-to destination for publishers and readers

With Sharjah being named World Book Capital 2019, we discover how the small emirate has become a giant in the arts world

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In 1982, Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, launched the first Sharjah International Book Fair. It was, at the time, the only book fair in the region. It was also, in truth, not a great success. Only a smattering of people turned up on opening day and things didn't improve much from there. At the end of the second day, some of the booksellers complained to Sheikh Dr Sultan about the lack of sales and suggested he shut the fair down.

Instead, so the story goes, the Emirati ruler made his way to the site and bought every single one of the books on display. "He was just supporting the publishers," says Salim Omar Salim, director of Sharjah Publishing City, the Arab world's first free zone for the publishing and printing industry. "Now we are talking about the third largest international book fair in the world."

It is an extraordinary turnaround. In 2018about 2,000 publishing houses from 77 countries turned up to offer 20 million books to 2.23 million visitors. This year's event, which runs from Wednesday, October 30, until Saturday, November 9, is expected to be even bigger. 

Transforming Sharjah into a literary destination

The tale captures something of Sheikh Dr Sultan's determination to transform Sharjah into a literary destination. This, after all, is the man who, as a child, mortgaged the golden dagger his father gave him, to buy books. Countless projects since illustrate how potent his determination remains.

There is the Sharjah Book Authority, which was launched in 2014 to highlight "the importance of books in today's multimedia world". And Sharjah Publishing City, which houses 600 offices for industry professionals and a print-on-­demand service, allowing publishers to print up to 10,000 books in 24 hours. Sharjah Public Library is one of seven libraries in the emirate and was moved to a new home in Cultural Square in 2011, where it now welcomes about 120,000 visitors a year. The city also hosts the annual Sharjah Children's Reading Festival and is home to Kalimat Group, the publishing house founded by Sheikh Dr Sultan's daughter, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, the first Arab woman to become vice president of the International Publishers Association.

Publishers take charge

Kalimat Group, which now has five imprints, embodies Sharjah's ambitions to promote Arabic-language authors. Sheikha Bodour established the publishing house in 2007 when she realised that there was a shortage of quality Arabic children's books. "Those that did exist were translations of foreign books and their print quality and illustrations were very poor," she once told the World Intellectual Property Organisation.

Since 2007, the Kalimat Group has published more than 400 books, mostly for children and young adults, in Arabic. It was nominated for excellence in the publishing industry at the London Book Fair in 2014 and two years later won the Best Publisher Award for Asia at the international Bologna Children's Book Fair. In 2017, it also won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Publishing and Technology.

The Emirates Publishers Association is also a bastion of Sharjah's literary scene and this year celebrated its 10th anniversary. In the past decade, it has been dedicated to supporting the UAE's publishing industry by offering training programmes and promoting Emiratis on the world stage. "For example, it offers new publishers a one-year mentoring programme to boost their professional skills and expand their experience," added Sheikha Bodour. "One of its core functions is to promote and support translations from and into Arabic."

There are now 125 publishers listed on the EPA website, offering everything from comics to literary fiction, and cookery books to a wide variety of educational materials.

In February, the EPA launched its "One Stop Shop" initiative, which allows member to access all the services they require in one building at Sharjah Publishing City. "A publisher will require someone to do their shipments, someone to print their books, someone to design their covers, you might request a financial consultation, so you need all these components in one place," says Salim. "This is the place for that."

The Manassah Platform, meanwhile, is a grant that covers the expenses of smaller EPA members (those that have published fewer than 20 titles), allowing them to exhibit at international book fairs. "Through the platform, we introduce intellectuals across the world to the huge strides taken by the publishing sector in the country," EPA executive director Rashid Al Kous explained when the initiative was launched in January. "It is an opportunity to connect with peers and forge partnerships with international counterparts that will contribute to advancing and diversifying the content."

Because of the platform, 66 publishers have participated in book fairs in Casablanca, Muscat and Riyadh.

Knowledge Without Borders

But it is not only these major projects that deserve attention. Smaller initiatives are also having an impact. Between 2008 and 2016, as part of the Knowledge Without Borders programme, each Emirati family in Sharjah was given 50 books, to create their own library. This was helpful, no doubt, for government employees in the UAE entitled to "dedicated time to read" during working hours, as part of the national law of reading introduced by the President, Sheikh Khalifa, in 2016.

Books are big business here. The UAE’s publishing industry is currently worth $260m (Dh955m) and, according to estimates by Sharjah Publishing City, will be worth $650m by 2030. Sharjah, ­undoubtedly, will be the driving force behind the growth. “This is a quantum leap by any measure,” says Salim.

World Book Capital 2019

Perhaps most excitingly of all, though, Sheikh Dr Sultan's long-held ambition to place Sharjah at the centre of the literary world was finally realised last year when Unesco announced the emirate would be World Book Capital 2019. "Everyone is happy, especially His Highness," says Salim. "Everything he has done has paid off."

Sheikha Bodour described the news as "a dream come true for all of us … we've been working on World Book Capital for 10 years now, putting together programmes and events and activities all around books and reading and culture".

For Eman Bushulaibi, director of Sharjah Public Library, this felt like the culmination of years of service to the city's literary community. "We had a great day," she says. "I'm originally from Sharjah and when I graduated from university, I never considered working anywhere else. I really feel part of this city … I felt like I was part of a grand movement of culture." 

It is a remarkable achievement, particularly when you consider that past winners of the World Book Capital title include capital cities such as Athens (2018), Bangkok (2013) and Buenos Aires (2011).

 What impressed Unesco most about Sharjah was the cohesion between so many disparate elements of the publishing industry in the emirate. On a visit to the city in April, Hugo Setzer, president of the International Publishers Association, one of the organisations that advises Unesco, said: "Sometimes the jury receives some requests from cities where they have a very strong publishing community, but they are not so much involved with librarians, booksellers, authors and so on. It's important to have them all together, working together."

Sharjah’s system, he said, is more integrated and that was an important factor when deciding to bestow the honour. You certainly feel this cohesion as you wander around Sharjah. Everywhere you go at the moment, brightly coloured flags with its World Book Capital motto – “Open books, open minds” – flutter in the breeze, acting almost as a trail from one literary site to the next.

The Scroll, an enormous sculpture by British artist Gerry Judah, spirals into the sky by the road leading into the emirate, in front of the soon-to-be-completed House of Wisdom, a state-of-the-art library, which will be home to more than 100,000 books, as well as a cafe and children's educational space. Even on the beach, portable libraries have been installed, so that, wherever you are, you never have to be without a good book for long. The calendar of events for World Book Capital is impressive, too, featuring everything from a celebration of World Braille Day to an Arabic poetry festival and a used book fair.

The local population has quickly responded to this literary environment. "People actually come to hang out in the library," says Bushulaibi. "If you visit on a Saturday, you'd be really surprised because normally people would go out to a shopping mall, but now the library is that destination … we're going to get all the diverse communities into the library and change lives through books."

But Salim hopes the Unesco title will represent only one part of Sharjah's literary journey. "I'm not going to say this is the peak, but it's really an honour," he says. "Increase the number of publishers and the quality of books goes up.

"Knowledge is something continuous and you need to keep getting more and more of it."