The 2018 Bahrain International Book Fair: Breaking Your Fast with an Onion

The 18th edition of the Bahrain International Book Fair opened its doors on March 28 and is set to run through April 7. Unfortunately timed, this year’s fair has failed to impress:

By Mariam F Al-Doseri

Photo credit: Dr Thuraya Juma.

When patience is poorly rewarded, you will certainly hear Bahrainis express their frustration by likening the situation to “breaking one’s fast with an onion.” And after a little over a year’s worth of waiting, Bahrain’s 18th International Book Fair is that onion.

The country’s yearlong celebration of Muharraq, as the 2018 Capital of Islamic Culture, was behind the inconvenient choice of venue. The choice, in the vicinity of the 15thcentury Arad Fort and with a view of the sea, compromises the overall exhibition space and accessibility to the venue. You know thing are a bit crammed when AlSaqi does not have its usual extended booth.

The unfortunate timing of the fair undoubtedly has affected the quality and quantity of exhibitors and side events, including book releases, meet-and-greets, and signing events. The fair was untimely, launched four days after Riyadh’s and a day ahead of Baghdad’s, whose fairs respectively attracted readerships who had previously often been willing to cross the causeway or fly over to Bahrain for an event with fewer publishing restrictions, and an exciting line-up of visiting authors.

At the end of the fair in 2016, Algeria was nominated as a guest of honor at the subsequent edition, only to be replaced, rather abruptly, by Saudi Arabia. There has been no clarity with regard to the change, but the decision, whatever the reasons, contributed to disappointment.

Photo credit: Bahrain International Book Fair

Saudi exhibitors had their hands full with the Riyadh fair, and relocating so soon after its end seems like a logistical nightmare. However, a select list of 24 exhibitors made their way to Bahrain. Visitors have been invited to a handful of events, including live performances by the traditional Saudi band Nagham, a photo exhibition about Saudi-Bahraini ties, and a few rotating art exhibitions by Saudi artists demonstrating their skills in wood carving and painting on leather, in addition to a few movie screenings by Saudi filmmakers.

Yet when it comes to literature, the onion is not even fresh; the absence of Saudi writers — think Mohamed Alwan, winner of last year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction; or Badryah el-Bishr, whose books are available despite controversy; or Abdulla al-Sufyani, whose latest poetry collection is fresh off the press — is perplexing.

Interestingly enough, the fair manages to strike a balance — often absent — between genres. Onion or no onion, household names like AlMutawasit, AlSaqi and AlJamal are stocked up with newly released books of fiction and non-fiction, and readers should not miss The United Arab Emirates’ Kalimat Publishing Group, which never disappoints with titles for starters and young adults, and Nahed al-Shawa’s award-winning Noon has a beautiful range of little books with big messages.

Still a few Bahraini veterans are signing their new releases; essayist and playwright Aqeel Swar is releasing a collection of colloquial poems, Mood for Love (Arab Institute for Studies and Publishing, 2018); there’s novelist and scenarist Fareed Ramadhan’s latest The English Ocean (Dar Soual, 2018); Ahmed Radhi also spins Marquez’s Macondo into the small Bahraini town of Ma’ameer, Ma’ameerndo (Faradees, 2018); as well as translations by Abdulqader Aqeel and Amin Saleh, with, respectively, a critical reading of the history of horror movies and a number of literary and philosophical essays.

Newcomers to the literary scene include Yousif Albinkhalil’s debut novel Green Sea, Red Pearls (Albinkhalil, 2018); Zeyad Ali Abdulghafar’s Gulf Rhythms: A Novel about Alnaham Bader alSadeh (Arab Institute for Studies and Publishing, 2018); and Khalifa al-Khalifa’s self-published science fiction novel, in English, Dissensus (CreateSpace, 2018).

The fair will conclude with the announcement of the 2018 Bahrain Book Award, under the theme “Literature and Shaping the World,” aimed specifically at works from Saudi Arabia, as well as the Mohamed al-Banki Award for the Cultural Personality of the Year and the Bahrain Pearl Award, given in recognition of significant contributions to cultural research. All announcements are scheduled to be made on Saturday, April 7 at 10:00 SAT.

Mariam Al-Doseri is a feelance scribbler based in Bahrain. She’s interested in arts and culture, with a focus on literature and languages.