by K.J. Howe
With all the heartbreaking strife in the world these days, I’d like to light a candle of hope. Perhaps we can build more kindness and acceptance by uniting over a shared passion–BOOKS–as they can truly bring the world together, at least that is what I’m experiencing this week at the Sharjah Book Festival.
|Saudi Arabian booth–fond memories for me as I spent a lot of time there|
|Irish chef Kevin Dundon|
From October 31 to November 10, Sharjah–which is about half an hour away from Dubai in the UAE–has over 2.3 million visitors to the Expo center, everyone gathering to celebrate the written word. I’ve met poets, chefs, evolutionary biologists, professors, tech gurus, real estate experts, translators. and a host of other fascinating people who have come together to discuss literature in all forms and languages.
Just walking down the bustling halls of the Expo center, you feel immersed in a world of acceptance, positivity, and enthusiasm. People are busting around the seven halls to learn about the different venues, drink tea, and chat about their shared passion. I’d love to share a few highlights to demonstrate that we need to keep events like the book fair in the forefront of our minds as a way of understanding different cultures and finding shared joy. You could find almost anything inside the expo center, including booths selling antiquated books hosted by Austrians, novels in a host of different languages, and even had a Baskin Robbins stand.
Speaking of food, I met Lee Holmes from Australia and Kevin Dundon from Ireland, both famed chefs with impressive backgrounds and kind hearts. Watching Kevin share his Irish cooking secrets with attendees from many nations was inspiring. Who can’t agree on the brilliance of lemon zest on seafood served inside puff pastry?
|Mystery and Suspense Panel|
At my panel on mystery and suspense, I was on stage with Dr. Ahmed, a renowned professor from Saudi Arabia and Lamya, our brilliant Egyptian moderator from Dubai. We discussed the key components of crime fiction in both Arabic and English while a translator spoke into the headsets of any audience members who didn’t speak both languages. There was such interest in novels from all cultures, and it brought the crowd together even though we all came from different parts of the world.
|Kunle Kasumu from Nigeria, Channels TV|
I met the charismatic Kunle Kasumu from Nigeria who was one of the most dynamic interviewers I’ve ever met. We shared our common interest in African culture and books…and guess who his favourite author is–Lee Child. See, we all love the vigilante retribution that Reacher delivers to the bad guys.
Another highlight was visiting an American school here in Sharjah and speaking to 100 young girls about writing and career choices. Some were from Syria, others from parts of Africa, others from the Middle East and beyond. The hugs I received at the end of the session will stay with me long after I leave the UAE.
|After the talk at the school, chatting with the girls|
What fun meeting the drivers who took us on a wild adventure in the dunes. I broke bread with an economist from the U.K. and his wife who was from China along with two publishers from Spain, and a special couple from Australia.
The culture of the UAE and the government of Sharjah are both very supportive of literacy and literary traditions. The ruler of Sharjah has started a program called Knowledge Without Borders with the goal of putting a library in every home in the Emirate. They deliver and install a special bookshelf to each home along with fifty free books for each family. So far, they have delivered about thirty thousand “libraries” and one million free books. In addition, they fund a large share of the festival, including programs encouraging young people in developing countries to read and seek higher education. I had the privilege of meeting three young Nigerian students whose book reports had scored them a trip to the festival. You can see a very bright future in their eyes.
The authors are all staying in the same hotel and the cross-pollination of creativity and positivity is unbelievable. At breakfast, you might be discussing chimpanzees with a top evolutionary biologist. Lunch brings about the power and traditions of poetry from African and Lebanese poets. Down by the pool, a discussion is ongoing about the power of social media and what it means to grow up in the internet age. And dinner features top chefs sharing cooking secrets.
Yes, there is heartache and pain every day as a result of hate and intolerance, but I remain hopeful that positive people can unite against evil, resist it, and focus on what amazing things we can do if we work together.