After a few days attending the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, you normally amass a number of colourfully branded bookmarks.
This year, it’s barcodes and QR codes.
There is one for the carpark, another on the ticket for the author session you want to see and, of course, there is one on your Al Hosn App showing results of your negative PCR test taken within 48 hours.
This is what it means to hold a book fair in the age of the pandemic.
Judging from the glinting eyes behind the masks of book sellers, culture lovers and thought leaders, the Abu Dhabi iteration couldn’t have come fast enough.
While the event, running until Saturday, May 29 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre (Adnec), downscaled and adopted a hybrid programme of in-person and digital sessions, the pandemic hasn’t quietened the rumbling hum synonymous with book fairs.
A cross between a marketplace, university and airport, it is common to hear haggling (“yalla, make it Dh10 and we are done”) at the stands blended with discussions about Arabic poetry from the stage and the Adnec sound system informing us of the latest session at the show kitchen at Hall 8.
Do the book fair like Dr Maher
The sense of relief is palpable.
“Last year has been difficult for me,” Maher Sayadi says as he stands beside a ream of Sheikh Zayed biographies at the Motivate Publishing stand.
The Syrian physician says the cancellation of cultural events in 2020 was acutely felt by the capital’s residents.
“Abu Dhabi is all about culture and the arts and we embrace that here. So to have the book fair back for me, and I would argue for many of us who live here, is a sign that things are slowly getting back to normal.”
To underscore that spirit, Sayadi approaches the book fair in the same manner as he has for the past 11 years.
His book shopping tips are worth remembering. “If you are serious, like me, you come here three times,” he says.
“The first day is for scouting around and picking up books you immediately want. Day two, you take your time and try to find books you didn’t find earlier. The last day is for last-minute shopping.”
Such a method nets him a dozen books annually. This year's fair bag already includes an Arabic translation of Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace and a biography of 20th-century Lebanese-Palestinian poet May Ziadeh.
Where books matter
Also found strolling across the halls is one of the book fair’s architects.
As the chairman of the Abu Dhabi’s newly established Arabic Language Centre and an acclaimed Emirati poet, Ali bin Tamim recalled the painful decision to scrap the fair last year as a safety precaution against Covid-19.
“It wasn’t an easy decision but we were one of the fairs that postponed last year for the betterment for everyone,” he says.
“It was particularly tough on the booksellers and publishers who rely on book fairs to showcase their work.”
This is what separates a book fair from a literature festival, Tamim says.
“The book fair highlights and celebrates everything about the publishing process,” he says. “From the writing and editing to the production and translation and selling of rights, the Abu Dhabi Book Fair covers all of that.”
He also confirms to The National the fair will expand its coverage with a greater focus on Arabic audio books, with the Arabic Language Centre offering up to 300 grants to regional publishers to stimulate further production.
That spirit of an industry coming together is not only felt behind the scenes but on the stage as well. Such is the richness of the UAE literary scene, the country boasts at least three world renowned events, with the Abu Dhabi Book Fair joined by its Sharjah counterpart and Dubai’s Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature.
Isobel Abulhoul, chief executive of the Emirates Literature Foundation, which runs the Emirates Literature Festival, tells The National that leadership teams from all three festivals maintained close contact throughout the pandemic, as well as appearing and sharing content with each other's events.
“We all appreciate each other and we need to continue working together as people passionate about writing and literature,” she says after moderating a session on digital piracy.
“We all have the same aim and we don’t have a rivalry. The success of any event is shared because we view it as another tick mark in showing the world that the UAE is a place for culture and where books matter.”
The wisdom of a book merchant
The book fair exemplifies that not only through the sheer mass of the hundreds of thousands of books displayed in the stands of more than 800 exhibitors from 40 countries, but also through its eclecticism.
While the majority are Arabic titles, English readers will find a few pearls when looking hard enough.
At the far left hand corner of Hall 8 you will find Al Saqi Books (stand 8105), the influential Lebanese publishing house and London book store, home to translations of key works from late Egyptian pioneers Nawal El Saadawi (Two Women in One and Memoirs of a Women Doctor) and Naguib Mahfouz (The Quarter).
For current literature on the region, you can't go past Blackstone & Holywell (stand 8G41), manned by the irrepressible Idris Mears.
“The relationship between a book merchant and the public is deep. It’s like a doctor recognising what they need and prescribing the right antidote,” he says.
“Giving somebody a book that not only inspires them but broadens their horizons creates an immediate bond. So when I come back to the book fair, it’s not work, it’s like a meeting of friends.”
The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair may be smaller than usual this year, but its heart is as big as ever.
More information on the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair is available at adbookfair.com