For all the talk of new publishing technologies, the Frankfurt Book Fair is a traditional affair.
Although delegates may spend the day listening to the latest features of Spotify’s audiobook platform and wearing virtual reality glasses to inspect new and planned libraries and literary districts in Turkey, they prefer to talk and, literally, break bread.
This is why some of the most important events of the fair are not only appearances by star authors and politicians, but those either not mentioned in the programme or simply given a passing reference.
These are the networking receptions that publishing houses and organisations, big and small, conduct at their respective stands. The gatherings where fresh leads are created, invitations are offered and new chapters in partnerships begin.
No wonder, then, Ali Bin Tamim is at ease during their soirees.
As the chairman of the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre, run under the auspices of the Department of Culture and Tourism, he annually hosts such receptions — to lay seeds for co-operation in the UAE and abroad.
The events feature authors, translators and international book fair officials.
Thursday’s reception, held on the second of the five-day book fair, was held in the centre’s elegant stand within the fairground.
German translator and Arabist Stefan Weidner and Frankfurt Book Fair Jurgen Boos are in attendance, highlighting the Arabic Language Centre’s standing as one the leading cultural organisations from the Arab world.
"We are proud that the centre has been well received because it has two important meanings associated with its name.
“The first, being that it comes from Abu Dhabi, and the other is the Arabic language. We want to tell people that it always and still matters," Bin Tamim tells The National.
"We are coming here to talk about going forward. This centre is not only about preserving the language, but developing the lexicon in various ways in the digital and online space.
"And when it comes to these kinds of conversations, there is no better way to do it other than here in Frankfurt, which is the most influential book fair in the industry."
The Frankfurt effect
The effects of such discussions, held both in the open and behind closed doors, will be felt in Abu Dhabi when the city’s book fair returns next year from May 23 to 29 at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre.
Bin Tamim expects a bigger and better programme of cultural events to take place, having sent a team of Abu Dhabi book fair officials to Frankfurt.
"We have sent a team of young professionals here and have direct experiences on how to create a compelling book fair," he says.
"The aim of this is not only to have a higher quality book fair, but to ultimately develop it from being one concerned with the purpose of purchasing and selling books towards developing a culture of reading, authorship and creating new and different cultural trends."
Also looking at the future is Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, who as the chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority is responsible for a majority of the emirate’s major literary projects such as the mammoth Sharjah International Book Fair and Sharjah Publishing City.
Speaking to The National after the reception from the authority’s nearby stand, he describes attending the Frankfurt Book Fair as a battle against time and shoe leather.
“You are walking so much every day and trying to get as many meetings completed.
"By the end of the book fair, I would have completed over 150 meetings and these conversations will form many of our plans for now and the next few years to come.”
With the Frankfurt Book Fair returning to full capacity for the first time since 2019, the thousands in attendance and Al Ameri’s lively networking put to rest any notion that book fairs can function — as many did during the height of the pandemic — as effectively online or in a hybrid format.
"While it is called the publishing industry, what differentiates it from others is that it is ultimately based on friendship, relationships and connections," Al Ameri says.
"Face to face is the most effective way of doing business. Let me put it to you this way. I finished a meeting this morning and in those few minutes we managed to achieve what our team couldn't do online through zoom and phone calls in six months. This is why coming here is ultimately worth it."
With the Abu Dhabi Language Centre, Sharjah Book Authority and Emirates Publishers Association often occupying one sizeable piece of real estate at the event, strategically placed near the main entrance, the book fair is another opportunity to put on a united front in support of the UAE’s thriving literary scene.
"The UAE's presence in Frankfurt has been for decades and it has grown exponentially,“ Bin Tamim says.
"Our presence is not only to highlight the importance of Emirati and Arabic culture to Germany. While it does build an important cultural relationship between both countries, it also enhances a number of others as well.”