What to Make of the Abu Dhabi Book Fair

“I would like to see this fair not as a miniature version of Frankfurt, but as something in its own right.” Something more colorful, says Abu Dhabi Book Fair manager Monika Krauss. Something less dry. Of course, she tells translator/editor Chip Rosetti, it’s ultimately still about business.

It’s hard, at the moment, to imagine exactly what Abu Dhabi could be. The Emirati interest in the arts seems to have sprung up quite suddenly—much like the crazy-fantastic-frightening Emirati cities themselves—although of course poetic traditions do go back centuries.

There are many things about the Emirates that terrify: If Johann Hari’s “The Dark Side of Dubai” doesn’t scare you, I don’t know what will.  But the focus on literary arts—through cultural television programs, children’s literature, literary prize money, and more—seems almost as fabulous and hard to believe as a ski slope in the desert.

I don’t doubt the Emirati desire to cultivate culture. It’s just, as a middle-class, middle-Western American, I’m used to culture being an extra. It’s never been one of our major food groups. Now, if you have a little room left over after having eaten your canned peas and mashed potatoes, then you may have a tiny shake of culture. (But be sure to exercise after!)

But here the Emirates are focusing on culture even when their “bread and butter” seems in doubt. Perhaps it’s another way of attracting money; perhaps it’s a way of asserting cultural power; perhaps it’s a way of disrupting the old yadda-yadda about “Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, Iraq reads” (and, now, the Emirates has the purse strings).

In any event, it has my attention.