Sharjah International Book Fair: The Trip of a Lifetime
Two weeks ago Lynne and I had the honor of attending the Sharjah International Book Festival, held in the United Arab Emirates and the third-largest book festival in the world. Over one million readers, young and old, visited during the course of the eleven-day event. Authors, poets, and publishers from around the world participated. It was an education for us in so many ways.
The sheer numbers were astounding, and the diversity electrifying. It took us two days to explore the entire venue, and the number of books on display was staggering. We sat on a panel of writers, one of whom was Kuwaiti. When the moderator asked what one of the most difficult things about being a writer was, she answered, “Staying alive.” It was a stark reminder to us of the bravery that many of our fellow authors show in the face of persecution by repressive regimes.
We had the opportunity to visit a GEMS school in Abu Dhabi and speak to over 200 students (who, of course, speak fluent English along with Arabic, Hindi and French!). They were bright and curious, polite to a fault, and asked thoughtful and spirited questions. There is no free primary and secondary education in the UAE. All students pay school fees and must buy their own textbooks and uniforms.
Sharjah, one of the seven Emirates of the UAE, was named the Book Capital of the World for 2019, by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA), and the International Publishers Association (IPA). The Festival slogan was “Open Books, Open Minds.”
This Emirate has determined it wants to be a knowledge center and to take UAE and Arab literature to audiences around the world. They promote literacy for prisons and rehabilitation centers, have programs for refugees in Syria and other parts of the world, and most importantly have projects that get books to the migrant population of the UAE by translating books into their native languages such as Hindi, Tagalog or Urdu. Migrants make up 90% of the UAE’s population.
There are mobile libraries, libraries in parks and even in Bedouin tents. One government project––“Knowledge Without Borders”–– provided 42,000 local families with free home libraries of 50 fiction and non-fiction books. The government also provides tax-free status and office space to publishing companies.
Naturally, not all of our time was spent on books. We took in the sights, and they were breathtaking. Roaming the souks, we saw enough gold to refill Fort Knox and wondered why something so plentiful could so valuable. One of the 90-degree afternoons was spent reading on the beach and swimming in the Persian Gulf––the perfect de-stressor for a hectic schedule!
In Abu Dhabi, we saw the incredibly beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, built over the course of three years at a cost of $545 million. It is one of the largest mosques in the world, with room for 40,000 worshipers.
Spending time in Dubai, we marveled at the mind-blowing architecture, with the most amazing structure of all being the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. We sat at its feet and watched a light and water show that kept a crowd of thousands (and us!) mesmerized.
We were welcomed at the U.S. Consulate for a wonderful reception where we were able to mingle with other authors and heads of state.
Of course, a visit to the Emirates wouldn’t be complete without an evening in the desert, so we buckled up in jeeps and held on as we rode the steep, curving sand dunes. Watching the sun go down over the golden red sand was a sight we’ll never forget. A dinner by candlelight under the stars capped off the night.
The people were wonderful, welcoming and couldn’t do enough for us. Wherever we went, we were struck by the magnificent mosques and the immaculate cleanliness of the country. If you ever have a desire to visit a mall that has every high-end product in the world, then the Dubai Mall is the place for you. It’s like nothing we’ve ever seen, with a giant aquarium smack in the middle of it. The downside was the traffic––just horrendous.
It was the experience of a lifetime, and we are both so grateful to have had this wonderful opportunity.