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Bodour Al Qasimi during the opening ceremony at 59th Bologna Children’s Book Fair, where Sharjah is the Guest of Honour this year. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: The UAE flag fluttered high in the historic Italian city of Bologna where Sharjah is being celebrated as Guest of Honour at the 59th Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF), which runs until March 24. Over the course of four days, the northern Italian city is showcasing the unique cultural vision of Sharjah to a diverse global audience and celebrating the intellectual and cultural legacy of the Emirati and Arab worlds.

The opening ceremony was held in the presence of Bodour Al Qasimi, President of International Publishers Association (IPA); Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi, Chairman of the Department of Government Relations (DGR) in Sharjah, who is heading the emirate’s delegation to the book fair; Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of Sharjah Book Authority (SBA); Matteo Lepore, Mayor of Bologna; and Glanpiero Calzolari, Director of BCBF.

Global cultural institutions

Also attending were Gianpiero Calzolari, president of BolognaFiere; Ricardo Franco Levi, president of the Italian Publishers Association; Maria Maddalena del Grosso, director of Consumer Products Division at the Italian Trade Agency; Michele Roberts, author ambassador BolognaBookPlus; Elly Schlein, vice-president Emilia-Romagna Region; as well as several diplomats, representatives of global cultural institutions, and literary and artistic personalities from across Europe.

Over the next four days, the emirate’s cultural project founded by His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Supreme Council Member and Ruler of Sharjah, is being presented by Bologna as a model for cities keen on embracing a knowledge-based development strategy at the BCBF, which is a leading professional event dedicated to the children’s publishing industry.

‘If you’re into books you’re into Sharjah’

Addressing the guests and attendees on behalf of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah, Sheikh Fahim Al Qasimi, Chairman, Department of Government Relations (DGR), Sharjah, drew parallels between the emirate and Bologna, describing both cities as rich in culture and education with a focus on publishing.

Recounting His Highness’s contributions to shaping his life as an avid reader and a champion of cross-cultural cooperation, Sheikh Fahim noted: “I grew up in a small city by the seaside, where a young leader decided to build the city’s values on culture and education. This young leader’s vision created a seismic shift in the Arab world’s impact on publishing. Today, Sharjah is a hub of international publishing, a UNESCO World Book Capital, and has given the International Publishers Association its second female president, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi.”

Talking about the emirate’s 50-year efforts to inculcate the habit of reading in the community, especially amongst children, through its book fair and children’s reading festival, Sheikh Fahim said: “If you’re into something you’re into books, and if you’re into books you’re into Sharjah”.

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The opening ceremony of 59th Bologna Children’s Book Fair was held in the presence of Bodour Al Qasimi and other dignitaries. Image Credit: Supplied

‘Building bridges of understanding’

Highlighting the vital role played by the publishing industry, especially during the pandemic, IPA president Bodour Al Qasimi said: “We were one of the few sources of comfort and security to millions of children and readers in a world that was abruptly thrown into chaos and uncertainty. I am proud of the work publishers have been doing throughout the world to serve their communities and to adapt to rapid change.”

In his keynote address, Matteo Lepore, Mayor of Bologna, stressed the power of culture and knowledge in unifying visions and ambitions of cities and countries around the world. He pointed out that Bologna holds great respect for Sharjah and her cultural journey. He added that Bologna was keen on strengthening the cultural relationship and forging new partnerships with Sharjah.

Inauguration of Sharjah’s Guest of Honour pavilion

In the presence of diplomats and representatives of Emirati and Italian cultural institutions, the director of the book fair inaugurated and toured Sharjah’s Guest of Honour pavilion, who was briefed on the participating entities from across the UAE and the Arab region and given an insight into their offerings during the book fair, which encompasses the fields of arts, publishing, heritage, translation and other creative sectors.

The visiting dignitaries also reviewed the published works of the Ruler of Sharjah, which was translated from Arabic into the Italian language, in addition to other translated titles by the Sharjah Book Authority that are aimed at introducing Italian readers to the creative and literary output of Emirati and Arab authors. The officials were also briefed on the cultural magazines and periodicals issued by institutions across Sharjah, and apprised of its value and appeal for readers in the region.

‘Enhancing experiences and expertise’

Khoula Al Mujaini, Director of Fairs and Festivals at SBA, gave the dignitaries an introductory tour of the Children’s Book Illustration Exhibition, and highlighted ‘Illustration Production Workshops’ organised by SBA to enhance the experiences and expertise of Emirati artists and present their works to Italian and European publishers and creators.

As Guest of Honour, Sharjah will shine a light on the cultural initiatives that reflect the emirate’s distinctive cultural journey. The emirate will organise creative workshops, panel discussions, storytelling sessions and more in the Guest of Honour pavilion and at various other sites. Entities in the emirate will also conduct school visits to introduce Emirati and Arab literature to Italian and Arab students.

Showcasing emirate’s literary efforts

A key highlight at Sharjah’s Guest of Honour pavillion at the ongoing 59th Bologna Children’s Book Fair (BCBF) is a showcase of the emirate’s successful efforts in enhancing the language-learning experience of Arab children worldwide by strengthening the presence of Arabic children’s literature in libraries across continents.

Kalimat Foundation, a Sharjah-based global non-profit dedicated to bringing less-fortunate Arab children around the world closer to books written in their mother tongue has been a key driver of these efforts through its ‘Pledge a Library’ initiative. In Italy, Kalimat Foundation has collaborated with the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY)’s Italian chapter to bring Arabic books to schools and learning centres attended by children of Arab origin.

The success of ‘Pledge a Library’ initiative was discussed by an expert panel during a session titled ‘Little Arabic Libraries’. The session hosted Reem Al Jassim, manager of special initiatives, Kalimat Foundation; Flavia Cristiano, president, IBBY Italy; Silvana Sola and Marcella Terossi, coordinators of the project for IBBY Italy; Maria Luisa Albano, a teacher at one of the ‘Pledge a Library’ beneficiary schools. The session was moderated by Veronica Sirotti, director of Bologna Libraries .

‘Promoting children’s learning’

Flavia Cristiano spoke about the project led by IBBY Italy in collaboration with Kalimat Foundation to provide compact libraries containing Arabic language books to Italian schools and learning centers. “This experience reflects our vision to promote children’s learning of their mother tongue and helping them discover the common bonds of humanity”, she noted.

“Arabic is one of the seven most widely spoken languages in Italy. Italians are interested in it because we feel that we are very close to the Arab culture, and share similar cultural values,” Cristiano added.

Reem Al Jassim, manager of special initiatives, Kalimat Foundation, explained that the Pledge a Library was designed by Kalimat Foundation to bring children’s books libraries, each containing 100 books in Arabic, to inculcate the values of Arabic culture in young readers. She added that the initiative has distributed 15,000 books since its launch in 2016, noting that the initiative distributed 122 libraries and reached 152,000 children around the world.

‘Pledge a Library’ was launched in 2016, to empower refugee children in countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and South America by providing them with Arabic books that help them preserve their native language, culture, traditions and heritage.

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Bodour Al Qasimi addresses the opening ceremony of the 59th Bologna Children's Book Fair, which runs until Thursday. Image Credit: Supplied

Role of Arabic stories

A short documentary on the Italian chapter of the ‘Pledge a Library’ initiative was played during the session. The video highlighted the reaction of Arab children in Italian schools and educational centres and how they engaged with Arabic books, their experience of learning their mother tongue, and the role of Arabic stories in teaching them to appreciate their authentic identity as well as the Italian culture and identify what they have in common.

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Highlighting the importance of the partnership between Kalimat Foundation and IBBY Italy, Marcella Terossi, coordinator of the project for IBBY Italy; said: “The Foundation has played a key role in supporting IBBY Italy’s project to encourage children’s learning in their mother tongue and raise their awareness of common human values. This would not have been achieved without the efforts of Bodour Al Qasimi, President of the International Publishers Association (IPA), who invited us to participate in the activities dedicated to promoting children’s books and reading in Sharjah.”

Maria Luisa Albano explained that the initiative allowed her school to create new models for teaching Arabic-speaking children and integrating them with the Italian community. “We made a comparison between Arabic and Italian cultures to identify common cultural factors. For example, we compared the story of the Arab scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta and the Venetian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo. We also read a storybook by the Lebanese writer of children’s and young adult books, Fatima Sharafeddine, and compared it with a work by Italian author Roberto Saviano,” Albano further noted.