Since it first opened its doors in 1982, the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) has grown considerably. Last November, with Nobel Prize Winner Abdulrazak Gurnah as the big draw, and despite the challenges brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, Sharjah's annual literary event expanded to became the world's largest book fair. The fair continues to present an opportunity for readers and publishers in the region, who are often up against the ubiquity of social media, to discover new authors, titles and engage with the literary world.
More people in attendance, listening to discussions among authors and cultural figures, is welcome. Importantly, it bodes well for publishing houses, regardless of genres and language of publication. This year, visitors to SIBF, which opens this week, can even view ancient texts, including Arabic dictionaries from the 14th century and a rare genealogy manuscript featuring the family tree of the Prophet Mohammed. In allowing visitors access to such manuscripts and nudging them to discover new voices, the fair juxtaposes worldviews both old and new, and in doing so it enriches the minds of readers of all ages.
As a part of the fair and before visitors line up to attend the dozens of author panels and various sessions open to the public, though, publishers from across the region and the wider world are convening for three days to discuss, among other issues, the challenges facing publishers. A conference with such a scope that brings together 339 publishing houses can lead to finding solutions and working towards them – be it with regard to the future of digital publishing in the Arab world, or focusing on emerging markets to promote audiobooks or even exchanging ideas on international standards and publishing practices.
Last month at the Frankfurt book fair, another big event in the publishing world, back to full capacity since the pandemic began, Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, spoke about the importance of connecting with publishers in person at events such as these.
On overcoming the challenges publishers faced during and continue to face even after the pandemic, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi, the president of the International Publishers Association told The National earlier this year that the global industry will fare very well through this crisis. "This isn't blind optimism", she said "but a real understanding of how resilient and tenacious publishers are.”
This week, with "Spread the Word" as the theme of Sharjah's 41st book fair, more than 2,000 publishers from 95 countries will participate. At least 10 countries are joining the fair for the first time, including the Philippines, Ireland, Mali, Jamaica, Iceland and Hungary.
As Sheikha Bodour wrote in these pages last year: "In the UAE, I have witnessed firsthand how progress on freedom to publish can be achieved through continuous, multi-stakeholder dialogue."
With just under a 100 countries participating, over the next fortnight, readers as well as the publishing industry will stand to gain.