The Sharjah International Book Fair ended on the 15th, and — by the numbers — it was the most successful in that city’s book fairs yet, drawing a number of visitors (or visits?) that puts it in league with the mammoth Cairo and Riyadh book fairs in terms of attendance:
And in sales, $48.5 million puts it far ahead of Riyadh’s reported $19 million. It’s far more than the flashy Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, which this year drew in a reported 248,000 visitors and around $9.5 million in sales.
Indeed, when book fair director Ahmed Al Ameri says, “We had so many people this year that we have some cracks in the tiles,” it is certainly believable: When the students were around, it was difficult to move from one section of the book fair to another, even more packed than a Friday at the Cairo International Book Fair.
In the fair-wrap press release, it notes that “On one day alone, November 11, nearly 46,000 students from 350 schools visited the fair,” and I believe that’s the day it took me twenty minutes to cross from Hall 5 to Hall 2.
Anecdotally, publishers were happy with sales this year. Gulnar Hajo of the Bright Fingers publishing house, for instance, said that, “We are always happy in Sharjah.”
Of course, there are many other metrics by which to judge a book fair and festival, especially one that tries to hit so many aims — the quality of professional events and meetings, the public’s engagement with cultural events, children’s-book readings and engagement with authors — and with such rapid growth there are bound to be growing pains. Sharjah saw a 45% increase in visitors this year over last, and cultural events continue to multiply apace.
This sometimes means that panels can seem rushed together or authors can be invited and then nearly forgotten. Indeed, a high-profile authors can be flown all the way to Sharjah to be wedged onto a single panel discussing something outside her or her focus, as Moroccan novelist Youssef Fadl was only used on a panel about theatre. Other panels seemed to be moderated by people unfamiliar with the genre and authors.
The embarrassment of riches means that many interesting and big-name authors are barely promoted and hardly seen, although some need no introduction or publicity, such as Ahlam Mostaghanemi, who apparently generated a tempest in a teapot with fellow Algerian novelist Yasmina Khadra about the worth of writing literature in non-Arabic languages.
The fair also boasted a packed series of professional events that preceeded the fair and an American Library Association conference at the fair’s end.
The Sharjah International Book Fair is almost surely the most ambitious Arab book fair: aiming to be a trade fair, a selling fair, a book festival, and a children’s-book festival all in one. It is a gargantuan task, and yet somehow it all came together, one way or another.