Sharjah is probably one of the few cities with book monuments. There is a main intersection commonly named the Book Roundabout after the massive sculpture of Quran, held by two hands, prominently rested in the middle of the intersection.
Those who have lived in Sharjah long enough, like me, will tell you that this collective passion for books in the emirate is one of its main attractive characteristics. Sharjah’s name has thus become synonymous with books worldwide. Its famous book fair is now the third largest in the world.
This is an emirate in love with books culture and arts. And this is the result of long years of nurturing, hard work and dedication by one man — His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, the UAE Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah.
For the past 40 years, Sheikh Sultan, an accomplished author and historian himself (he has authored more than 40 books), made the pursuit of knowledge through books his mission. He believes that books are a life necessity like air and water.
An oasis of light
He once described books as “ships with which we travel through time, not just for viewing; but to gain wisdom, culture and science.” Therefore, he launched the Sharjah International Book Fair in 1982. “A book exhibit is an oasis of light that must be nurtured and developed constantly,” Sheikh Sultan remarked.
The last edition of the Sharjah book fair before the coronavirus outbreak drew a record breaking 2.52 million visitors. That year, 2019, Sharjah was designated by Unesco as the World Book Capital, the first Arab city to get the honour, “in recognition of the city’s determined and steadfast efforts in promoting books and literacy and elevating the cultural movement in the country,” according to the international cultural body.
Those efforts, duly recognised by Unesco, are being exerted for the right reasons. In the past few decades, the Arab world sadly lagged other regions in book reading. In fact, since 2003, with the release of the first United Nations Development Programme’s report on Human Development in the Arab world, the statistics are nothing but terrifying.
They present a dismal state when it comes of book consumption in most Arab countries. That report indicated that Arab citizens read much less than a book a year, “with every 80 people reading one book a year”. To put that in perspective, a European citizen reads about 35 books a year, the UNDP report said.
In 2011, the Beirut- based Arab Thought Foundation released a report that was even more shocking. It said an Arab “reads or only 6 minutes while the European reads for an average 200 hours a year.”
Those reports have stirred a lot of controversy in the region. Many doubted their credibility. Science fiction, a friend said on TV, I recall. Others meanwhile thought they were realistic. They point at the rate of illiteracy in some Arab states, which is higher than the rest of the world. (Recent reports however refuted those earlier reports).
Most important was the Arab Reading Index issued by the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation and in partnership with UNDP, which said an Arab reads an average of 16 books a year. The report was based on an online survey of 148,000 Arab citizens in all of the 22 states).
An uninterrupted campaign to foster reading
Sharjah took it upon itself push the envelope to break the cycle. With initiative after initiative, such as the $300,000 Translation Grant, launched by the Sharjah Book Authority 10 years ago, the emirate has been actively promoting the love of books nationally and regionally. It is sort of one uninterrupted campaign to foster reading.
Books bring people and civilisations closer. They bridge cultural, religious and ethnic differences through our awareness of ‘the other’- those who are different from us. The book, therefore, helps propagate tolerance and mutual understanding, which are the guiding principle of the UAE.
With that principle in mind, the Sharjah Book Authority launched last week a new initiative to take that campaign globally, with a nice and catchy slogan- ‘If you’re into something, you’re into books’
As per the authority, this campaign aims to “debunk the myth that books are only for intellectuals.” It drives home an “enduring universal message that whatever be it that triggers one’s interests or passions, there is a book out there to fuel their curiosity”, the authority says.
Around the world, book lovers will get up to 50 per cent discount on books as part of this global campaign through the authority’s collaboration with the leading online stores. They just have to visit the authority’s website to get their favourite book. I personally like their message on the website. It says: ‘Whether you are a gamer, dancer, influencer, explorer, footballer, foodie …. There is a book for that!’
The campaign will be a long and enduring one. With the onslaught of the social media, YouTube and all the shallow ‘fast food’ of information, it is important to preserve and promote the real source of knowledge — books. As the Arabic saying goes, the book is man’s best friend.