The emirate of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, stars as the Market Focus at the 2020 London Book Fair. It is the start of an extraordinary year for Sharjah, which will also be the guest of honor country at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and the Guadalajara International Book Fair. This series of professional events extends a yearlong run of initiatives that began with Sharjah’s turn as UNESCO World Book Capitol in 2019.
Why has this modest-size state within a relatively small country invested so heavily in books, publishing, and reading?
“When it comes to ‘why books?’ the answer is simple: the direction and authority comes from the ruler of the emirate, Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al-Qasimi,” says Faisal Al Nabouda of the Sharjah Book Authority, who is responsible for putting together the professional program at the London Book Fair. “He believes that reading books offers the finest conveyance of knowledge and wisdom available to man.” The sheikh, a prolific author himself, will be present at the opening ceremony of this year’s fair.
But why extend this support of books and publishing to the international community? “The U.A.E. has more than 200 nationalities living in it and from the beginning has been a very metropolitan place, with a lot of different communities,” Al Nabouda says. “So it is natural that we share culture, not only with our fellow Emiratis and the countries around the Gulf but with all people from across the world.”
The U.A.E. has a special relationship with the U.K.—one that dates back to the late 19th century, reinforced by the discovery of oil in the emirates and a partnership with British Petroleum, and that carries on to today. “Sharjah was the location of the first regional hub for British Airways when it started flying to the region in the 1930s,” Al Nabouda says.
At the LBF, visitors will be treated to a stand organized by the Sharjah Institute of Heritage, which will feature traditional clothing and crafts, a display of maps showing the evolution of the U.A.E., and samples of its cuisine, including tea and dates. Numerous other activities, such as musical performances and author readings, will take place at the LBF and throughout London.
Twelve Emirati authors are attending the fair. These include spoken-word poet Afra Atiq, who will be honored as author of the day on Wednesday, March 11; poets Khulood Al Mu’alla and Khalid Albudoor; short story writer Mohammad Al-Murr; novelist Salha Obaid; fantasy writer Dubai Abulhoul; and essayist and diplomat Omar Saif Ghobash. In addition, 60 books by Emirati authors have been translated exclusively for the fair.
“It is our hope that the authors and the books we bring to the fair will help spur interest in the Emirates and will foster more buying and selling of rights,” Al Nabouda says.
As noted, the London Book Fair is just the kickoff for a big year that will see the emirate featured at fairs across the world. But for Al Nabouda and others from Sharjah, the highlight is the Sharjah International Book Fair, which takes place in November and has risen to the top tier of international events.
“When people come to Sharjah, they are amazed at what they find,” Al Nabouda says. “There is the book fair, yes, but also Sharjah Publishing City Free Zone, the Emirates Publishers Association, our ongoing translation-grant program, and so much more. All of these initiatives seek to empower and support reading in the country—and now, as you can see in London, all around the world.”