Austin and Abu Dhabi Face Down Digitization, Scantily Clad Women

In English Language by Edward Nawotka

Editorial by Edward Nawotka

discussion at ADIBF

SXSW: As I wrote last month, the book conferences are coming fast and furious. Though I’m still suffering from jet lag from my recent trip to the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF), I’m already at another conference, SXSW Interactive in Austin, Texas. What’s noticeably different this year at SXSW are the number of panels –- a dozen or more -– related to book publishing in one form or another. It’s also worth noting that this year SXSW is itself featuring a number of panels on Web development for an audience in the Middle East. Evidently more cross-cultural digital collaboration is on the horizon.

Having just returned from the Middle East, I thought it worth noting a few observations about how digitization issues were addressed in Abu Dhabi. While digitization was not the dominant topic of discussion as it has been at recent book events in Europe, Asia and North America -– the professional side of the ADIBF is still focused on helping Middle Eastern publishers who are still working out some basic issues such as rights contracts -– it was an important part of the agenda.

Entering the E-zone

To this end, the ADIBF launched a dedicated “E-zone” which featured stands with e-book readers, digital book scanning equipment, printing technologies and digital service providers from the Gulf. There were talks offered by Ramy Habeeb of Kotobarabia.com (the Arabic-language e-book publisher), Ronald Schild of Germany’s libreka!, and Michael Smith of the International Digital Publishing Forum –- who came under some criticism throughout the fair for the difficulty of using ePub to display Arabic language fonts, something he staunchly disputes. (“It’s the devices that are the problem, not ePub itself,” noted Smith).

It should come as no surprise then that among the many projects being spearheaded by the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (the organization overseeing the ADIBF) and the new Abu Dhabi library is an effort to create the first digitized font of the Diwani style of Arabic calligraphy.

Reticence About Revealing Too Much

One of the more interesting conversations I had in Abu Dhabi was during a presentation on social networking. The presenter, Farid Gasim, director of operations for Grafdom, a Dubai internet consultancy, noted that “there are certain cultural sensitivities that must be observed in the Middle East when using social networking.” LinkedIn is the preferred medium for professionals, because “you don’t have to delve into someone’s personal life, looking at photos and movies.” Using Facebook can be awkward: a man trying to “friend” a woman who is not a family member, for example, is not often done.

Initially, it made me wonder if Facebook had much of a use at all in a country like Saudi Arabia. What, for example, would a page of friend’s photos look like in a place where many women wear full, face-covering head scarves (“Different,” would be one way to describe it). As it happened, I sat next to Fatimah M. AL-Hussein, director of the Women’s and Children’s division of the King Abdulaziz Public Library in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, who told to me that people in Saudi Arabia were curious about social networking and her library had experimented with Twitter, but there was remained a great deal of reticence about something that was a tool to “broadcast yourself to the world.” Arab cultures are far more private, which will impact how they use these digital tools. It’s something she encouraged multimedia tool developers to consider.

Awkward Moments

Of course, when you’re online or in an airless convention center all day, it can be easy to forget exactly “where” you are. There were more than a few awkward moments at the ADIBF involving cultural misgivings. During one panel in Abu Dhabi about the American book market, a literary agent chose to illustrate her point of how agents can help promote foreign writers in the American market by using the example of her work with the Israeli writer David Grossman, something that prompted at least one person to leave and others to complain.

Later, a German Internet consultant showed a video from Time Inc. featuring content from a Tablet-optimized version of Sports Illustrated to demonstrate what a digital magazine might look like; unfortunately, the video, while instructive, also featured several minutes images from the SI swimsuit issue of bikini clad babes frolicking in the sand — images that are considered offensive in the Muslim world.

As Americans or Europeans, one might be inclined to dismiss this latter example as being too slight to warrant mention, but it’s important to remember that every culture has its taboos and its limits: In Austin this year at SXSW, pornographic movie star Nina Hartley is presenting a talk about her use of social networking to reach out to fans. Ironically, at the same time, artist and presenter Molly Crabapple was told that the SXSW’s pop-up bookstore, which is run by Barnes & Noble, refused stock her book Scarlett Takes Manhattan, claiming it was “too pornographic.”

There’s no word on whether Hartley’s book, Nina Hartley’s Guide to Total Sex will be on sale at SXSW. However, Crabapple is still going to be able to sign copies of her book there. “I will actually be sitting in the Barnes and Noble store,” wrote Crabapple on her blog, “but you’ll have to pay me directly, lest the Barnes and Noble credit card machines are befouled by Scarlett’s filthy filthy lucre.”

DISCUSS: Should SXSW become a fixture on publishers’ calendars?

About the Author

Edward Nawotka

A widely published critic and essayist, Edward Nawotka serves as a speaker, educator and consultant for institutions and businesses involved in the global publishing and content industries. He was also editor-in-chief of Publishing Perspectives since the launch of the publication in 2009 until January 2016.