Sharjah's role as World Book Capital will be a truly global inspiration

Every civilisation that has left a mark on human history has based its influence on knowledge and culture. This idea is at the heart of the next year's plans

Sharjah’s efforts are part of a broad drive to foster a culture of reading nationwide and in the rest of the Arab world. Christopher Pike / The National
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Sharjah is no stranger to cultural accolades and recognition. We have been designated the Cultural Capital of the Arab World, the Capital of Islamic Culture and the Capital of Arab Tourism. And, this year, we were crowned the World Book Capital. There is a common denominator in all of this: the world sees Sharjah as a shining beacon of cultural light in a region often misunderstood and misinterpreted.

The global acknowledgement of Sharjah’s cultural leadership has not gone unnoticed in the Emirate itself. We are not only humbled by it, but also inspired. Inspired to do more, to further embrace our cultural DNA and further entrench our commitment to culture. We continue to encourage the exchange of ideas, information, art, audio-visual and all other aspects of culture that foster a deeper sense of humanity and mutual understanding.

Some may question this approach for a region vibrant with traditional commercial activity. Why so much focus on culture, books, and reading? I would like to answer this with a simple "Why not?" Why not focus on immersing ourselves in cultural heritage and progression? Cultural and economic development are not mutually exclusive. Every civilisation that has left a mark on human history has based its influence on knowledge and culture. The Islamic and Arabic civilisation is no exception, and has contributed significantly to the advancement of science, medicine, philosophy, literature, economics and the humanities over centuries. It, too, has built a solid and influential foundation, based on its love of literature and art.

In today’s digital world, it is easy to underestimate the power of the written word. In our quest for instant gratification, we often overlook the importance of the experience of learning through reading. As social media becomes increasingly omnipresent in our lives, some even predict the end of the book era, the end of serious cultural exchanges and even the end of the most essential human cultural foundations.

I disagree. In fact, I believe the opposite is true.

When I travel around the world, I make sure I visit libraries, bookshops and cultural centres. In them, I see hope

When I travel around the world, for business or pleasure, I make sure I visit libraries, bookshops and cultural centres. I see hope. I see people of different ages and backgrounds immersed in pages of knowledge, yearning for an individual experience that is the written word. While they may subsequently share their experiences on small electronic screens, there is a clear return to analogue literature as a source of education, entertainment and cultural enlightenment that is countering digital trends. When I visit international book fairs in Asia, Europe, Africa, the Gulf or Latin America, I see the thirst for books in the eyes of thousands of international visitors. A thirst that will, in my opinion, never be quenched for as long as humans live on this planet.

We, in Sharjah, believe we have a huge role to play in continuing this journey and in advancing human civilisation. Our model of economic development is deeply rooted in human development. Our focus on culture and, specifically, books and literature are galvanising the youth of our region and unifying them around the promise of progress and prosperity based on knowledge. A visit to the Sharjah International Book Fair – the third largest of its kind in the world – ignites a sense of hope, as we witness thousands of students, families, children, adults, experts, intellectuals and elderly scholars from all over the world uniting amid an ocean of books to share and fuel the collective imagination.

We will continue to offer this precious community to the world. The recognition as World Book Capital will increase our ability to champion values such as empathy, tolerance, understanding, trust, and more global inter-cultural collaboration: values that continue to fuel hope in a world marked by conflict and division.

The year-long World Book Capital programme, which begins tomorrow, is based on access, diversity and inclusivity. Whoever you are, whatever your cultural background, there will be a book or an activity for you. Our six guiding themes reflect our values, and future goals. These are unifying communities, fostering knowledge, honouring heritage, empowering children and youth, raising awareness and developing publishing industries. This is a 365-day endeavour, with teams working around the clock to raise the bar and present a new global benchmark for World Book Capitals of the future.

Our main theme is "Open Books, Open Minds Celebrating the Power of Books to Unite People". Each one of us might interpret these themes in their own way, and I encourage you to do so. From our vantage point, "Open Books" means bringing a wider perspective, fostering respect and a deeper appreciation of difference. It means opening minds and opening hearts. Open hearts, in turn, lead to more empathy and more prospects for peace and positive coexistence.

This is our gift to the world. We will hold steadfastly to this commitment and will continue to hold the candle of knowledge to enlighten and guide the whole region in this journey of continuous cultural learning and engagement. This is not a promise we made lightly, and we have every intention of honouring it.

Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi is vice president of the International Publishers Association and founder and president of Emirates Publishers Association