Now entering its fourth decade, the Sharjah International Book Fair has firmly established itself as single most important book fair in the Arabic-speaking world, one that encompasses more than 400 billion readers. It’s now clearly among the pantheon of the top annual book publishing trade fairs, alongside those in Bologna, Frankfurt, and London, making it a huge draw for professionals from around the world looking to collaborate, negotiate, and network. Through its fellowship program, the SIBF brings hundreds of publishing professionals to the U.A.E. each year to participate in several days of programming intended to promote international dialog, establish best practices, and establish new communities.

What’s more, the SIBF has been a strong advocate for literacy and access to books, often supporting those among the neediest—from local families to those farther afield, be they in Asia or Africa. The organization has also served as an ambassador for the Arabic language and culture of the Middle East, having introduced countless people to the rich history and heritage of the region. In that way, the SIBF is leaving a lasting legacy for generations to come.

On the occasion of the SIBF’s 40th anniversary, PW spoke with HE Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of Sharjah Book Authority, the organization responsible for running the SIBF and establishing and acting on its vision and ambitions.

Now that the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) has reached the milestone 40th year, how has it evolved in these four decades?

Yes, this is a milestone edition for SIBF, which, in its first edition in 1982, was set up with a handful of publishers. The concept of a book fair was new to the region then—both for the residents and the publishing community. Today, 40 years on, SIBF has grown in stature and appeal, and evolved into a vibrant annual cultural destination for book lovers across the region. At our last in-person fair in 2019, there was a record turnout of 2.52 million visitors, along with 2,000 publishers from 81 countries, and books in almost 200 languages.

Yet, from 1982 until now, what has not changed is our mission to foster a love of reading and broaden young minds by instilling a passion for knowledge and ideas. This is the driving force that continues to shape SIBF even today, ever since the fair was founded 40 years ago, defined by the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, to create a strong reading community and promote a love of books and culture amongst the future generations to develop a knowledge-based society.

What role has it played in fostering the dissemination of Arabic book and publishing culture over the years?

Rewind 20 years and the Arabic publishing industry was mostly producing content to meet the needs of local and regional markets alone. Today, several regional publishers have forayed into international markets with a diverse content profile including translations, are boosting publishing standards, have migrated to sustainable business models, and are thus elevating both the profession and the industry.

A large part of these achievements has stemmed from SIBF’s efforts in bringing together industry professionals on a common platform to exchange knowledge and expertise and discuss strategies to advance the sector. The Publishers Conference held at SIBF has been enhancing professional and personal development of all stakeholders while also introducing them to new technological know-how and other innovations in the sector.

Through multilateral collaborations, publishers in the region are also undertaking translation works in a multitude of languages to grow their audience and promote Arab culture worldwide. The SIBF Translation Grant, exclusively available for Publishers Conference participants, is an example of one such sustained effort that has widened the presence and impact of Arabic publishers on the international arena.

What is the vision for the fair going forward into the future?

SIBF ranks high on the calendar of cultural, intellectual, and knowledge-based events hosted globally each year. As one of the top three book fairs in the world, SIBF will continue to grow as a comprehensive and holistic event that brings together global authors and cultural personalities and an exciting range of titles in all genres on a unified platform.

Under the guidance and directives of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah, SIBF has remained true to its essence of being a key pillar of Sharjah’s cultural project. As such, the annual fair will drive forward the emirate’s vision of promoting cultural understanding, knowledge, art, innovation, and human capital development through books.

It will seal its status as the go-to place for books, reading, and cultural appreciation; it will be an international meeting place for all stakeholders in the industry—readers, authors, creatives, publishers, librarians, and literary agents included.

The fair is primarily a consumer show. What kind of people come to the fair to buy books?

SIBF is a meeting point for different cultures and peoples—all bound by the pure and simple love of books and reading. This is where people come to interact with the finest writers and creative minds in the world of literature, cutting across all boundaries in language, culture, and geography.

Here, you will find readers of all ages—from tiny tots and school children to young adults, people in their 30s, 50s, 70s, and so on. Our readers and visitors represent diverse nationalities and communities, and we take great pride in the fact that SIBF is a free-to-attend event for one and all. Our audiences come here to be inspired, not just by the wide range of titles that span a spectrum of genres and languages, but to also listen and learn from discussions, interviews, and other cultural and educational events hosted here annually.

Sharjah is a center of culture in the UAE. How does the book fair contribute to this?

In Sharjah, literature is a tool that is used to strengthen bridges of cultural cooperation and communication with nations around the world. As a unique cultural and artistic hub of the Arab world, there exists a collective passion in the emirate to build a knowledge-based society and economy where books and reading are given top priority.

This emphasis on reading and knowledge stems from the vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, in creating a nurturing environment to enhance the creative potential of the young generation and build up a nation of readers with innovative and critical thinking skills. A prominent initiative in reinforcing this cultural vision and bringing it to fruition is the annual SIBF, which both instills and supports positive reading habits and celebrates the power of the written word.

How important is the presence of the hundreds of international publishers and agents to the show?

Publishers are the guardians of a language, its culture, and literature. They are vital to promoting literacy and knowledge and as such, are an integral component of SIBF every year.

Bringing together publishers, agents, distributors, retailers, and book lovers together on a single platform is vital to leading the conversations on new thoughts and ideas that benefit the publishing ecosystem and advance it to the next phase of growth. The presence of hundreds of regional and international publishers at SIBF each year provides ample opportunities to network, find new partners or buyers, demonstrate their respective capabilities, and benefit from collaborations. In our 40th edition, SIBF will host 1,576 publishers from 83 countries.

A great deal of knowledge-sharing and learning takes place at SIBF each year; it’s truly international character makes it an ideal space to test new products and channel growth based on the first-hand experience with end consumers or with partners from another part of the world. From a professional perspective, publishers also get to learn from experts in their field, enhance their book marketing campaigns, and discover new trends in the industry. The 2020 hybrid edition of SIBF, for instance, was pivotal to boosting the capabilities and charting the recovery of global publishers who had suffered major setbacks owing to the pandemic.

Tell us a little about how the fair supports rights sales and literary translations.

As I said earlier, SIBF upholds its mission to connect publishers in the region and the world through a series of initiatives and activities. The annual Publishers Conference, for instance, is a platform to discuss book sales, potential agreements, translations, copyrights, and distribution rights. The $300,000 SIBF Translation Grant, exclusively available for participants of this conference, provides global publishers with the funding assistance needed to translate their works.

Supplementing these efforts is the hugely popular "Matchmaking" sessions that have been designed for the convenience of publishers and industry professionals to discuss buying and selling of rights and strike new deals, especially in the Arab market.

Another unique initiative is the AED 1.3-million Sharjah Translation Award or "Turjuman," which promotes Arabic literary works globally and is open to international publishing houses, which have published translations of an original publication in Arabic.

Our most recent initiative in this direction is the Sharjah International Literary Agency (SILA), launched in 2020. This is a first-of-its-kind literary agency in the UAE and the region, which will facilitate communication among publishers, authors, translators, and creatives. SILA will regulate their operations in line with prevailing frameworks, and ensure that the rights of publishers and writers alike are protected.

The fair always has star headline authors. Who would be headlining the events this year?

The milestone edition of SIBF this year will be headlined by the 2021 winner of Nobel prize in Literature, Tanzanian novelist Abdulrazak Gurnah. SIBF will mark the first international participation of the Nobel Prize winner after winning the prestigious award. Award-winning Indian writer Amitav Ghosh, who recently published his third book of nonfiction; Chris Gardner, author of best-selling autobiography The Pursuit of Happyness; and Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra, are other internationally renowned personalities at SIBF this year.

Kuwaiti novelist and short story writer Taleb al-Refai is SIBF’s Cultural Personality of the Year, while notable names from the Arab region include poet and artist Khalid Abdulrahman, author Ahlam Mosteghanemi, Dr. Ahmed Emara, poet Hisham Algakh, actor Muhammad Subhi, poet Faisal Al Adwani, Egyptian jewellery designer Azza Fahmy, Egyptian author Dr Midhat Al Adl, historian Ali Al Namlah, Jordanian Booker champion Jalal Barjas, poet Haidar Mahmoud, and artist Ahmad Al Jasmi.

Spain is Guest of Honor at SIBF this year. What kind of relations do Spain and the UAE share?

The UAE and Spain have enjoyed strong bilateral relations as strategic trade and business partners in several areas through joint investments in energy, education, culture, technology, and media, amongst others.

The Guest of Honor title not only recognizes the strong ties between the two nations, but we also see a big potential for cementing the bonds of cooperation and friendship as we take our cultural relations to the next level.

What is the most exciting or surprising thing people don't already know about the Sharjah International Book Fair?

There are 970 cultural events planned for the 2021 edition of SIBF and we will be bringing more than 15 million books under one roof. With so much happening, there is always bound to be something that will surprises our visitors. For instance, while SIBF continues to draw millions of book lovers and readers of new titles and authors, it has also developed as a treasure trove for collectors who come here to source out and buy centuries-old manuscripts, books, maps, and other collectibles.

A key USP of SIBF is that every event here is free to attend and, hence, accessible to every visitor. Last year, SIBF became one of the first book fairs worldwide to adapt to a hybrid format, bringing in a whole new digital experience for our visitors and publishers as we streamed live discussions with authors, cultural personalities, and others on the "Sharjah Reads" platform.