By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
A Three-Day ConferenceShifting venue in this year’s COVID-conscious edition, the professional program that precedes the opening of the 2020 Sharjah International Book Fair got underway Sunday in the Sharjah Expo Center’s capacious ballroom for purposes of distancing. It has continued today (November 2) and will have its closing sessions on Tuesday.
Though moved from its usual setting in the Sharjah’s Chamber of Commerce’s theater, this year’s program follows its usual pattern of presenting a series of presentations and panels supportive of publishers, agents, and other sellers and buyers of book rights.
The program is staged by Ahmed Al Ameri‘s Sharjah Book Authority, which also produces the public-facing fair and is the organization behind the Sharjah Publishing City free trade zone for book business-related companies in the United Arab Emirates.
The professional program—renamed in recent years the Publishers Conference—and the fair itself form the annual centerpiece of decades-long project led by Sharjah’s author-ruler, the Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi to develop the UAE’s third emirate as an Arab-world hub of literary culture, the defining focus of the seaside city-state.
And while many frequent participants in the Publishers Conference aren’t able to make the trip this year because of the pandemic’s international surge and associated restrictions, as many as 300 attendees are anticipated this year, primarily from the region, not least because following morning programming each day, the conference adjourns for an afternoon of one-on-one meetings, becoming a rights trading center.
A 2020 Program Feature: A Remote Learning Panel
In a sign of the times, the program today has included an extensive conversation on issues around home schooling, a field encountered by educational publishers when the pandemic’s constraints produced a sudden demand in the spring for digitally developed and distributed classroom capabilities.
Seth Russo, a consultant who has worked for years with Sharjah’s programs, moderated the session, which featured:
- Pearson-UAE’s Malak Obeid
- Matt Santaspirt, the Middle East and North Africa regional manager for Cambridge University Press
- Lawrence Njagi, chair of the Kenya Publishers Association and managing director of Mountain Top Publishers
During the discussion, Njagi—who spoke from Nairobi—was in agreement with Santaspirt and Obeid on the need for an accurate assessment of what deficiencies have been created in students’ educational experience by the impact of the pandemic.
“We need to measure the time and knowledge and skills lost by our students over these past eight months,” Santaspirt said, “and then we need to be able to figure out how to remediate that.”
The kind of loss experienced by a student has much to do with her or his age, too, Santaspirt said. While a secondary or university student may be able to make up and accommodate disruptions to a school year, it’s a different matter for the very young students.
Looking at the UAE and Saudi Arabia, Obeid said, “Something we’re trying to figure out is what we’re going to do with the kindergarten kids.”
In surveying teachers in the field, she said, Pearson’s regional offices have found these educators concerned “with the assessment tools. How are we really going to assess our students” and what losses of competency and progress may have occurred as the shifts into digital platforms occurred and the efforts to maintain an educational path forward amid so much adjustment?
In addition to the mounting need for ways to clarify where learning gaps are opening, the panelists said they hope that in future emergency scenarios the educational world wouldn’t be caught running as hard as it has to handle the crisis.
More modular learning for older students and more flexible structures are anticipated as regular features of educational formats going forward. But whether the experiences of this year’s pandemic assault can be expected to inform and prepare the industry for coming challenges, as Njagi and Russo said, remain to be seen.
Also today, UK-based consultant Emma House moderated a panel on women in publishing, featuring Azafi Omoluabi-Ogosi, the CEO of Nigeria’s Parresia Publishers; Hala Omar, CEO and owner of Dar Hala distribution and publishing in Egypt; Gallimard’s international rights director Judith Rosenszweig; and Knopf publisher and executive vice-president Reagan Arthur.
There was also a conversation with Emirati author Salha Obaid, relative to Sharjah’s upcoming stance as London Book Fair’s Market Focus country, a distinction that Sharjah was to have played out this year. London Book Fair, of course, was the first of the major world trade shows in publishing to be scuttled by the pandemic’s outbreaks, in March.
On Sunday, Al Ameri welcomed the conference attendees and handed off to Perminder Mann, Bonnier Books UK’s CEO, for a keynote address.
Jacks Thomas, former director of London Book Fair, moderated a panel on “Surviving and Thriving During a Pandemic,’ its panelists including Nicolas Roche of the Bureau international de l’édition française (BIEF) and Ravi DeeCee, CEO of India’s DC Books.
Midas CEO Jason Bartholomew chaired a talk on the role of digital media in keeping international publishing connected with HarperOne’s Judith Curr (speaking remotely) and Gvantsa Jobova of Tbilisi’s Intelecki Publishing, as well as Khoula Al Mujaini, who directs Sharjah’s fairs and festivals.
Travor Naylor of the AUC Press and Bookstores in Egypt led a talk on finding new audiences for translation with Morocco-based Marcia Lynx Qualey, Hassan Yaghi of Lebanon’s Dar al-Tanweer, and Mozambique’s Sandra Tamele of Editora Trinta Zero Nove.
And Sharjah Book Authority’s Faisal Al Nabouda spoke to the group about the US$300,000 Sharjah Translation Grant program, available to conference attendees for applications, an incentive for rights trading in the afternoon talks.
The effort to move forward with this evocation of the Publishers Conference has been taken with many coronavirus precautions in place, and in a country that has required adherence to mask-wearing in public settings.
The pandemic’s economic impact is being felt this week at Dubai International Airport, a News 18 report indicating that the huge port—often cited as the world’s busiest for international traffic—is seeing passenger numbers at just under 15 percent of what they were a year ago. CEO Paul Griffiths tells the press that Dubai’s airport is seeing a bit more than 1 million passengers per month.
“Across the wider Middle East, passenger numbers this year are expected to reach only 60 million, down from 203 million in 2019, according to the International Air Transport Association,” the report has it. “That’s only 30 percent of last year’s numbers.”
At this writing, the UAE’s ministry of health and prevention is listing 1,234 cases of the coronavirus for November 2, and a current “active cases” count of 2,620, according to the Kahleej Times report for November 2.
The 5:24 a.m. ET (0924 GMT) update of the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center sees 133,907 cumulative cases in the United Arab Emirates’ population of 9.6 million, with 496 reported fatalities.