(from left) Manal AlKatib, Moon Byung-Jun, Abdalla Hassan AlShamsi-1667739593655
(from left) Manal AlKatib, Moon Byung-Jun, and Abdalla Hassan AlShamsi during the 'Cultural Diplomacy' session at SIBF 2022 at Expo Centre Sharjah Image Credit: Supplied

Sharjah: A ‘Cultural Diplomacy’ session at Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) explored the role of books and languages in the peaceful co-existence of nations.

The session, moderated by Dubai TV host Manal AlKatib, heard from officials of the UAE and South Korea on subjects varying from soft power to the impact of technology and social media.

Abdalla Hassan AlShamsi, UAE Ambassador to the Republic of Uganda, said cultural organisations in the UAE are very active in collaborating with different activities to boost cooperation with their counterparts across the world.

The Ambassador added: “The Arabic Language Week, hosted in collaboration with Cattolica University, is now one of the largest book fairs in Arabic language in Europe, thanks to the efforts of Sharjah. In Africa, we have a large number of students graduating with high tech skills as part of our initiatives, especially in East Africa.”

He said: “Creative authorities in the UAE are also joining hands with entities like UNESCO to boost cooperation and work towards a better future for all.

Citizens as ambassadors

“Every citizen is an ambassador of their culture and community. In history, great travellers and explorers like Marco Polo represented their culture and cuisines to the world. Our grandfathers went to Africa and beyond for commercial ties, and it is surprising how that has led to Arabic enriching Swahili literature with its vocabulary.”

Moon Byung-Jun, Consul-General of the Republic of Korea in Dubai, expressed his delight at SIBF naming his country as the ‘Guest of Honour’ next year.

He said: “The social fabric of the Arab world and Korea have a lot of commonalities, and hence the worldwide acceptance of Korean dramas, serials and music. In terms of books, the new generation is adapting to e-books for both knowledge and leisure and I believe that trend is set to continue all over the world. However, paper has a role in covering emotions and the role of traditional books will not diminish.”

He added: “I’m looking forward to SIBF 2023 and promise to bring in initiatives and activities to engage in more cultural understanding. Language is vital in promoting culture, and the Arab and Islamic world historically had invested in deep knowledge with the oldest libraries of the world in Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Tunisia, among many others.”

The Korean Consul-General said: “We now have many Korean students signing up for Arabic language classes in our universities all the way up to PhD levels and vice versa.”

Commenting on the importance of cultural diplomacy, Italian Ambassador to the UAE, Lorenzo Fanara, said that a total of 17 prominent writers and 12 publishers are attending this year’s SIBF where Italy is the Guest of Honour. He said: “We also have Michelin-star chefs, ballet performances and numerous other artists who are showcasing our rich heritage at SIBF 2022.”

He added: “Italians, no matter the level of education, are accustomed to reading culture and I’m hoping this will be passed to the younger generations. Adapting to the digital world is a must, but to get past the superficial layer and find our deeper gestures, one needs to get transported to a different world. The culture of publishing in Italy is set to stay, as it creates more employment opportunities and contributes significantly to the Italian economy.”

Drawing inspiration

Meanwhile, another session saw leading children’s book illustrators share insights into the art of visuals for books, from the concept through the various stages of execution.

The panel talk, featuring Italian children’s book illustrator Nicolette Bertelle and Emirati illustrator Alia Al Badi, demonstrated how artists transform stories and text into visual material to engage young readers.

Alia Al Badi (left) and Nicolette Bertelle Image Credit: Supplied

Alia said she reads stories from a child’s point of view, and translates the mental image that touches her the most into the accompanying illustration.

Bertelle said: “I discuss with the publishing house their expectations regarding the images, and then I take in the book as a reader, not as an illustrator. The final illustrations you see are a result of both processes.”

For books catering to younger children, especially those who are not yet old enough to read themselves, certain criteria such as larger illustrations with brighter colours are followed, while more abstract images and colouring may be used in works for older children.

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Evoking emotions

Both creators also said that they strongly follow their own emotions while illustrating.

Bertelle, who has more than 120 books to her credit, said: “You incorporate your own life experiences and visual references into your illustrations. While there is constant research and work that goes into illustrating, I know I’m on the right track if the images evoke a special emotion in me.”

Colours can also add powerful references or symbolism, said Alia, who pointed out that in her stories catering to young Emirati children, she takes painstaking efforts to get the local culture and details right.

“Words by itself have a magic spell that helps us create,” said Bertelle, while Alia said that a rule of thumb she follows while illustrating is: “I imagine that I’m a kid playing with colours.”