Last night, a regular, (cherished, actually) reader emailed me something like the question above. In fact, the reader asked:
“…in the grand scheme of the literary festival kingdom, who is Kuwait? Do they even have any credibility as a festival anyway?”
The short answer is: Well, Kuwait’s not much of anyone, I suppose, either in the international or regional literary kingdom. It’s not likely that anyone regrets that they spent their book-fair dollars traveling to Frankfurt or Sharjah instead of Kuwait City.
But, over the years, Arabic-language book fairs have served at least two functions: as professional trade fairs (fairs in Abu Dhabi, Dubai, and Sharjah are all trending in this direction) and consumer-oriented bazaars (like Cairo, for instance).
In order to be a truly professional fair, you need to have money and organization; you need to invite authors of international standing; a big award doesn’t hurt (like Abu Dhabi’s presentation of the Arabic Booker, or Sharjah’s Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Lit). You need to discuss things of importance to the book world. You need to make people happy they came.
It seems rather a lot to put together.
But while these professional fairs are certainly grander, consumer fairs have also been an important part of local reading culture. Before the advent of the Diwans, Alefs, Kotob Khans, Al-Balsams and the like, the Cairo International Book Fair was where you went to get your year’s supply of (discount) books. I know a number of people who still go there looking for bargains and interesting imports, although the scene is madhouse—with nearly 2 million visitors—and you should never, ever go on a Friday.
But if the Cairo Book Fair matters regionally, it’s only because your (Lebanese, Algerian, Jordanian) publishing house might sell a number of titles there. It’s not because there will be much for interesting book events or discussions. And if there were, how would you find them?
Kuwait (or the Sana’a book fair, or the one that just ended in Amman) doesn’t have even that much much regional significance. But I do think that these book fairs have been important for encouraging, or discouraging, the growth of a local literary community. And the struggle in Kuwait—between those who want greater access to books, those who want bannings, and those who don’t care—means something, I think, for the future of the country’s literary project.
Of course, it’s also possible that these consumer-focused fairs—now that we have better bookstores and online (soon Kindle/iBook) reading options—will become less and less important.
Over at the recently held Amman book fair, for instance, Jo and 7iber.com have both noted a number of problems: poor organization and marketing, low turnout, kids who don’t want books. Last year’s Cairo fair, I believe, also was down to 1.8 million in attendance.
Perhaps this means something about the Egyptian or Jordanian literary project. Perhaps it also means consumer-oriented book fairs are becoming less important in the Arabic-reading world.