This past week, both the Dubai-based Emirates LitFest (March 4-8 2014) and the Sharjah Book Fair (November 6-16 2013) released their programs; both of which are filled with big literary names:
The two events, however, are very different: the Emirates LitFest is a packed with (mostly) ticketed events, as well as workshops and a “fringe.” The Sharjah Book Fair is a 10-day book bazaar that’s accompanied by a major literary prize, publisher meetings, (free) author talks, workshops, and more.
This year, the Emirates LitFest has added a program called “Literary Idol,” which, organizers write, is “a cross between Pop Idol and Dragon’s Den, where a panel of experts critique writers’ unpublished work, which will be read aloud by an actor.” The judges and audience will then vote on their favorite piece at the end of the session.
The Emirates LitFest — the 2014 theme is “Metamorphosis” — boasts more than 100 authors from 24 countries and features a number of commercial events, such as “Quick Pitch,” where authors pitch a literary agent. Sharjah will also feature a wide range of international and Arab authors, including Najwa Barakat, Ibrahim Eissa, Sinan Antoon, Anwar Hamed, Mohamed Hassan Alwan, Alaa al-Aswany, Leila Aboulela, Ahdaf Soueif, Kholoud al-Maala, Huda Barakat, Joumanah Haddad, Ibrahim Nasrallah, Selma Dabbagh, Hussein al Wad, Saud al-Sanousi, Alawiyya Subh, Waciny Laredj, Mohammad Abdel Nabi, Muhsin al-Ramli, Nujoom al-Ghanem, and Ahmed Mourad.
All of this underlines the debate sparked by Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi at the beginning of of the month about whether the Gulf cities were the “new capitals” of Arab culture. Ursula Lindsey added this Friday on The Arabist:
Dubai has a booming art market, but it’s just that, a market — art is one of the many forms of capital that circulates there. The art exhibitions, international museums and publishing and translation ventures being generously hosted in the Gulf are a positive development, but this is largely culture for hire, for show, or as a form of international diplomacy. The foreign universities have an agenda to work on issues relevant to national development, but they cater to a minority of the population and are there under the patronage of individual rulers — they have no solid existence in society, from which to act as independent centers of learning.
And these gleaming, air-conditioned cities remain ones in which the population is divided into precise professional-ethnic castes that are constantly recycled, so that the majority of foreign workers can’t and won’t develop a stake in the place. Physically and socially, they are cities with no public, shared spaces, because they are designed to keep their residents segregated, to prevent them from mingling, gathering, and participating in free and open debate. And how can cities without centers of their own become the centers of something bigger?
Whatever one can say about the Cairo Book Fair, the Abu Dhabi and Sharjah fairs lack a space like the Cultural Café, where Egyptian writers have come to congregate and talk — which is presumably why Mubarak liked to mess with its availability and hours. In Abu Dhabi, food for the journalists is upstairs; otherwise, there is a food court out in the broad, echoey hallway. There is nowhere in either fair that’s really conducive to gathering and discussing. Although there are places called “the couch” or “the tent” or “the fringe,” they are for scheduled events, not for conversation.
I think Ursula Lindsey pretty much gets it right!
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