By Emily Thomas
One fine day, in the year 1975, a family-run business known as Magrudy’s began selling educational toys and children’s books in Dubai. Soon, their work extended beyond bookstores and into the community with read-alouds, author signings and book clubs. Arguably, these initiatives penned the way forward for literary growth in the UAE.Since the advent of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) in 1982, both local and international expos take place annually in cities around the UAE, boosting the region’s publishing and education industry. Last year, the SIBF alone attracted 2.38 million visitors and experienced record-breaking book sales worth over Dh206 million. A decade in, the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature is the largest celebration of the written and spoken word in the Arab world, bringing over 185 authors from 37 countries to Dubai.
While writers, educators and anyone who appreciates a good read will rejoice in the myriad possibilities they now have to delve into the business of books, what benefits do such literary events hold for a wider audience?
Add to your story
Any avid reader can tell you that sitting down with a great book is like finding a great friend. Bookworms acquire knowledge, empathise, and have a lovely time — all while turning the pages of a riveting read. Each story adds to an individual’s own narrative. A literary fair is a celebration of this knowledge and additionally serves as a social gathering from which anyone can enjoy or gain value. It presents a fun and informative setting that is appropriate for all ages — with everything from colourful storytimes to panel discussions and exhibitor booths.
As Dr Michael Barlett, founding executive principal, Rising School Dubai, puts it: “If you have the opportunity to be involved in an experience that enhances your understanding and character, take it. Else, you lose out on personal development.”
Begin a new chapter
Book expos and fests give people the opportunity to try something new or explore their literary abilities. Students get to participate in different contests and programmes — Isobel Abulhoul, director, Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, notes that the quizzes, story writing, and poetry performance competitions “allow students to shine in a variety of ways that focus on the written and spoken word as well as reading”. Also, such events are not only for the community — they depend on local support. These spaces provide amazing volunteer opportunities, especially if you’ve been meaning to get a start on that front. Volunteers gain invaluable experience in the events, communications and publishing industries while getting to interact with professionals from around the world and having memorable tête-à-têtes with literary stars.
Page through disciplines
It’s not only the book nerds who get to go ga-ga over their favourite divas — book fairs and festivals usually bring in specialists from diverse fields, giving visitors the opportunity to be inspired and gain insight into careers in publishing and beyond. Regulars include illustrators, designers, photographers, journalists, educators and activists. Based on sessions offered, festival themes or relevant topics in contemporary discourse, these occasions could also host media personalities, government officials or healthcare professionals — people from pretty much any walk of life. Afterall, there are books written on every subject under the sun.
While cross-cultural opportunities exist aplenty in the UAE, a large book-centric gathering is certainly a splendid way to engage with people from the world over. It could also be the only arena for residents to exchange dialogue with regionally-based or Arabian literati. On the other hand, given that such events don’t necessarily have a longtime presence in the Middle East, international book festivals and fairs such as those in the UAE offer global attendees a nuanced and varied understanding of their audience and the region as a whole. “Writing is often a solitary occupation. For well-known international authors, meeting readers here is a very interesting experience and one that often helps to broaden perspectives on both sides,” says Yvette Judge, chief operating officer, Emirates Literature Foundation. Abulhoul adds: “Prior to visiting, there is sometimes a stereotypical view of what to expect, and the festival has helped reveal realities of the place, and most importantly, its people.”