By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
A Pandemic-Era Hybrid Book FairIn a notable departure from what the world publishing industry has come to expect as the primary response to the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, Sharjah International Book Fair‘s organizers plan to go forward with a blended physical and digital event, November 4 to 14.
As ever, the event—in its 39th evocation this year—is produced under the patronage of the emirate’s author-ruler, the Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi by the Sharjah Book Authority under the direction of Ahmed Al Ameri. A new platform called Sharjah Reads is being set up to handle the digital elements of the event. Registration at the platform began Sunday (October 25).
It’s likely that this new online facility will be something the Book Authority can use in the future in association with traditionally staged fairs, much as Frankfurter Buchmesse plans to utilize elements of its digital rendering from this year in concert with future physical iterations.
As revealed in a news conference in the United Arab Emirates, the 2020 Sharjah program is themed “The World Reads From Sharjah”—a follow-on to the 2019 UNESCO Sharjah World Book Capital program, which was branded, “Open Books, Open Minds.”
There are to be at least 1,024 publishers from 73 countries represented at the fair, with 64 online and/or off-line events during the show’s 11-day run featuring 60 Arab and international authors from 19 countries. The publishers scheduled as exhibitors include 202 from Egypt; 186 Emirati presses; 93 from Lebanon; 72 from Syria; and 46 from Saudi Arabia.
As complex an undertaking as this is, a key element of the organizers’ rationale is the central role of the region’s major fairs in critical revenues for publishers. The book fairs of the Arab world are largely public-facing events, and a substantial part of a year’s sales are made by large and small presses in these settings. Sharjah’s position as a hub for the Gulf region’s literary economy makes the fair a yearly anchor in the Arabic book industry’s prosperity.
Last year’s fair was also 11 days long and drew a record 2.52 million visitors to the aisles of the Sharjah Expo Center. It’s anticipated that 80,000 titles will be displayed at the fair this year, and the exhibition floor is to cover some 10,000 square meters (107,639 square feet), presumably with special distancing between stands in its design.
One thing missing from this year’s program will be the opening ceremony traditionally hosted by Sheikh Sultan with a large audience of invited guests. The presentation of the fair’s awards normally takes place at that event, and will be postponed to 2021.
Al Ameri: ‘To Be Creatively Persistent’
While many accommodations are being made to handle the physical elements of the event as safely as possible, Al Ameri in his news conference has stressed, “Given Sharjah’s cultural role in the region for the past 50 years, we felt it was especially important for us to remind everyone that reading transcends distances, and has the power to lift us over the hurdles we face—even a pandemic.
“Reading is our gateway to new worlds,” he said. “It allows us to dream and reinforces our confidence to be creatively persistent.”
Some of the public-health measures being built into the program include:
- Visitors entering Sharjah Expo Centre will undergo thermal scanning and will walk through “sanitizing gates”
- Crowd-size control will involve colored bracelets that reflect the hours of visitors’ reservations, made online in advance
- Disinfection procedures are to be performed in five-hour increments “across the fair’s halls and publisher stalls daily
The sanitizing gates referred to may be among those made in the UAE. In May, it was announced that a Dubai-based company called Guard Me is manufacturing its “Guard Gate” product, which is said to kill germs and virus in a walk-through format.
All visitors will be required to be masked and to distance themselves while at the exhibition site.
Digital Events, Discussions
As part of the programming, a series of digital events will feature authors from the region including:
- Algerian writer Wasini al-A’raj
- Egyptian author and screenwriter Ahmed Mourad
- Kuwaiti writer Mishel Hamad
- Iraqi writer, poet, and translator Muhsin Al-Ramli
- Lebanese theater director, writer, producer, and educator Lina Khoury
From other parts of the world, some of the speakers planned to make appearances are:
- Canadian writer Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi
- American spoken word artist, rapper, and poet Richard Williams, who works as Prince Ea
- New Zealand author Lang Leav
- Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin
- Lebanese-Canadian author Najwa Zebian
- Canadian author and television host Neil Pasricha
- Italian children’s author Elisabetta Dami
- Indian authors Ravinder Singh and Shashi Tharoor
- British librarian and writer Richard Ovenden
Another feature is a series of digital discussions is being put together by several embassies to feature Emirati authors and counterparts from Spain, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia. In addition, online sessions with authors and young readers are being organized in cooperation with the UAE’s ministry of education.
Normally, members of the American Library Association gather for a conference with Arab colleagues during the Sharjah program. This year, that program’s seventh annual iteration is to be held digitally, November 10 to 12. With its own theme, “Challenges Faced by Librarians and Libraries During the New Normal,” that program is to include a dozen speakers daily, with Arabic and English translation.
Sharjah’s Publishers’ Conference, November 1 to 3, is the show’s professional program and is expected to have at least 30 speakers, drawing publishers chiefly from the region. Normally set at Sharjah’s Chamber of Commerce complex, it’s to be held this time at the Sharjah Expo Center prior to the opening of the fair itself.
Taryam: ‘Access to Science and Knowledge’
At the news conference, in addition to Al Ameri’s comments, the director-general of central operations for the Sharjah police force—Brig. Gen. Ahmed Saeed Al Naour—spoke about special preparations for the fair this year, saying, “We will be implementing all preventive and precautionary measures set by the national emergency crisis and disaster management authority across all its activities and operations.
“Sharjah Police has prepared an integrated security plan for both the regulation of traffic and on-site security procedures, which will be led by our special task force, patrolling, and media departments.”
The sponsor of this year’s fair is again the UAE-based telecommunications corporation Etisalat.
Speaking at the news conference, the company’s CEO and general manager for the northern Emirates, Abdulaziz Taryam, said, “Our ongoing sponsorship of Sharjah International Book Fair through the years reflects our belief in national cultural events playing a pivotal role in allowing members of community access to science and knowledge, which empowers them to contribute to the nation’s progress in a sustainable way.”
And much of the projection of the event to those who cannot be present physically will be handled by the Sharjah Broadcasting Authority. Sharjah TV manager Salem Al Gaithi at the news conference said the agency will use “all of our television and radio channels as well as social media platforms” in what he described as “a comprehensive strategy to broadcast and share the entire 2020 program.”
Those following along in the region will see them on Sharjah TV; the Al Sharqiya channel Kalba; Al Wousta Channel of Al Dhaid; Sharjah Radio; and Pulse 95 Radio.
We’ll have more details and coverage of this unusual pandemic-era event as is develops.
Meanwhile, looking at the contagion’s numbers as we do in all the international markets we cover, the United Arab Emirates is seen by the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center in its 5:24 a.m. ET update (0924 GMT) to have registered 125,123 cases in the UAE’s population of 9.6 million, with 477 fatalities.
The regional English-language Khaleej Times‘ Sunday report cites 1,359 cases in the most recent 24-hour reporting period, with 118,058 tests performed.
From international industry trends to curated guides to the many online events during this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, our digital magazine offers you the information you need to make the most of the fair and the rest of 2020.