If the words “Frankfurt Book Fair” conjure up images of giant halls packed with scurrying international book folk, you could be forgiven for not understanding what that institution has to do with the clean and serene scene at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates last week, which also is managed by the Frankfurt Buchmesse folk. Held in a brand-new convention center that seemed eerily quiet, the Abu Dhabi fair existed for 16 years as more of a “bazaar,” as its Emerati director, Jumaa Al Qubaisi, termed it—a place for consumers to buy books off publisher stands. Since the Frankfurt Fair—which also manages other such fairs, like the one in Capetown—became involved last year, the ante has been upped. In cooperation with the Abu Dhabi Cultural Heritage Foundation and a German-Arab company called Kitab, its goal is to expand it into a serious trade fair.
This is a tough job, partly because the 37-year-old United Arab Emirates, of which Abu Dhabi is the capital, has never been a reading culture—and because what book business does exist has been marred by problems that begin with copyright infringement and piracy and extend into regional politics—“There are no Israeli publishers here,” Kitab director Claudia Kaiser says, as the UAE, like much of the Arab world, does not welcome those traveling with Israeli passports. Then there is the language barrier: as British agent Andrew Nurnberg and U.K. Bloomsbury publisher Nigel Newton put it rather baldly in pre-fair discussion, East and West don't communicate well. Nurnberg angered some Arab publishers by suggesting that they were disorganized, took too long to respond to inquiries and sometimes misrepresented their interest in English-language properties. One Arab publisher countered that English-language publishers don't take them seriously.
Nonetheless, the organizers seem sincere about wanting to change all that. They turned down some 120 would-be exhibitors who had any involvement in piracy, and they're working to bring Arab and non-Arab publishers together in seminars and to raise the profile of reading. A book fair—related program called the Kalima Project has chosen 100 classic and contemporary non—Arabic-language books for which it will finance translation and distribution. The first list is eclectic, including several German philosophers and books by Haruki Marukami, Kiran Desai, even I.B. Singer. While fair organizers insist there's no censorship, they have attempted to keep out any “extremism.”
Will all this hard work pay off for publishing? (It surely already has for Frankfurt, which is rumored to have been paid tens of millions by the UAE.) So far, most attendees are still from the Arab world—Scholastic is one of the very few major American presences, and Random House's German subsidiary, at the fair, announced it was opening a small office in Abu Dhabi. So what if Abu Dhabi, which is also setting up outposts of the Guggenheim and the Louvre, may well be attempting, as one ex-pat journalist put it, to “buy culture?” (My visit, like that of other journalists and publishers, was of the all-expenses-paid variety.) So far, this lesser-known sibling to decadent Dubai is earnest about throwing a lavish, provocative and interesting party. Its success will depend on whether it can convince enough Western somebodies to come on their own dime.
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