SHARJAH // The visitors were the best thing about the Sharjah International Book Fair, said its director: whether it was those in a packed hall listening to Abdul Bari Atwan, the editor of London's Al Quds Al Arabi newspaper, as he spoke about meeting Osama bin Laden, or the constant stream of people leaving the Expo Centre with trolley-loads of books.
Last weekend almost 100,000 people walked through the doors and, although the figures have not been tabulated, Ahmed al Amri expected the turnout would be the largest in the 29 years of the fair's history.
Mr al Amri, who is in his second year of heading the book fair, said his favourite moment of the 12-day event, which finishes today, happened on Tuesday. He was standing at the collective stall and noted that gathered around were a Japanese girl, a Filipina, a Briton, an American, a Saudi and an Emirati.
"It made me very proud," he said. "The point I try to make through the fair is that books gather people together, they unite us in the same way as they define us. That people are coming and that people are buying, means that people are reading - and that makes me happy."
He was also astounded that all 5,000 copies of Hadeeth Al Zakira, by Sheikh Sultan Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, had sold out by Tuesday. A day later, there were 150 names on the waiting list. "Everyone wants a copy," he said.
The general consensus from publishers was that the book fair is one of the best in the region, in terms of sales. This year, the fair was extended from 10 to 12 days in order to spread over two weekends.
Ban al Ani, an Iraqi-British publisher based in London, said she sold 82 per cent of her stock after the first seven days.
"Usually I bring 30 to 40 boxes with me to a fair, but to Sharjah I brought double that and even then I had to send for more," she said.
Qassim Khalidi, the library director at Sharjah University, sent buyers around the fair to fill up stocks for the two campuses. They spent Dh1.2 million over the last week.
"This is the main source for building our library collection," he said.
Abdulla al Shami, a Yemeni professor of Islamic studies at the Petroleum Institute in Abu Dhabi, said he spent more than Dh50,000 on books. While some of them were for his students, others were destined for his personal collection, which tops 700,000 titles.
"Every year I come here to select the most recent sources of Islamic history and civilisation in English and Arabic," he said.
Mr al Amri spent the whole year travelling to book fairs for inspiration on this year's event. One result was the live cookery show, an idea he picked up in London. Naif al Muttawa, who wrote The 99, a comic series with Islamic superheroes, and Qais Sedqi, who created the Emirati manga comic The Gold Ring, led a discussion about the role of comics and the importance of stimulating a child's imagination.
With 789 publishers bringing 200,000 titles to the fair, Mr al Amri said he was pleased with its expansion and was looking forward to next year - the 30th anniversary of the event. "His Highness will be launching another book, we have A-list authors already confirmed and it will be a truly international event," he said.