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Young bookworms at the Sharjah International Book Fair that concluded on November 14. A Dh10 million order for books from SIBF were confirmed at the mega event in this challenging times. Image Credit: Ammar Ahmed/Special to Gulf News

Sharjah: An unprecedented edition of the 11-day Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) concluded on Saturday, with a number of surprise announcements made over its course and a successful run of its hybrid offline-online format held under the coronavirus pandemic.

The 39th edition of SIBF saw over 80,000 new titles, in addition to older ones, offered on-site at Expo Centre Sharjah by 1,024 publishers from 73 countries. This year, because of the pandemic, some 60 international best-selling authors and leading writers, poets, social media influencers and other personalities took part in talks on the ‘Sharjah Reads’ virtual platform of SIBF 2020, instead of face-to-face on-site sessions.

Pleasant surprises

Surprise announcements at the latest SIBF included the waiver of all rental fees, valued at Dh6 million, for all participating publishers, including those from crises-hit Lebanon; and a Dh10 million order for books from SIBF, in support of the publishing industry in these challenging times. Both directives came from His Highness Dr Shaikh Sultan Bin Mohammad Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah, who launched SIBF in 1982.

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‘Special gift for Sharjah’

Also, on Saturday, SIBF’s last day, best-selling children’s author Elisabetta Dami revealed she that will write a new book that will be published by the Sharjah-based Arabic language publishing house Kalimat. Her Geronimo Stilton series, named after a mild-mannered mouse who is the make-believe author of the series, has grown to accommodate 120 titles so far that have sold more than 161 million copies and has been translated into 50 languages. Speaking to radio presenter Anna Roberts on Sharjah Reads, Dami revealed that an original book written by her will be published by Kalimat. “It will have all-new characters and will later be translated into other languages. It is my special gift to Sharjah, a place I love!” she said.

Biggest names

This year’s other big names virtually attending SIBF included American rapper and social media star Prince Ea; Canadian writer Yann Martel, perhaps best known for his Life of Pi novel; and Ian Rankin, best-selling crime writer from the UK famous for his Inspector Rebus novels. The latest SIBF edition, held under the theme ‘The World Reads from Sharjah’, also heard from Indian author and politician Shashi Tharoor and novelist Ravinder Singh.

Over 1,000 translation applications

On the same day, it was also announced that SIBF organiser Sharjah Book Authority (SBA) has received applications from 1,014 publishers for SIBF Translation Grant that annually funds the translation of books by publishers participating in the yearly Professional Programme, which runs before the start of SIBF each year. SBA has also said registrations to apply for the fund will remain open until February 2021. This year, SBA has received applications to translate Arabic books into 15 international languages and applications to translate books from 16 diverse languages into Arabic. The grant was launched under the directives of the Sharjah Ruler at the opening ceremony of the 30th edition of SIBF to encourage the translation movement in the Arab region and the world through cash grants awarded to publishers to translate their publications into other languages. Valued at between $1,500 and $4,000, each grant helps a publisher cover the translation costs, partially or fully.

Why do writers write?

What motivates authors to write was the subject of one of the last Sharjah Reads sessions, titled ‘Why I write’. Emirati writer Eman Al Yousuf and Italian author, editor and publisher Dr Ernesto Franco spoke about what motivated their work and what the act of writing meant to them. Layla Mohammad moderated the discussion.

The ‘paradox’ of literature

Dr Franco spoke for all writers when he said: “I write for you, but to understand me and our shared humanity. I write also to discover what is still unknown.” He then compared literature to a democracy. “What is literature? It is more than one thing, but most of all it is a paradox. It is essentially a democracy. A reader listens to the voice of the writer which speaks to him through the book. He then decides whether he agrees with what the author has to say. He can reject it, but he can do that only after listening to it.”

‘It can get overwhelming’

Al Yousuf, who has written three novels and four collections of short stories, started writing at a very young age. “I was trying to find out who I was. We never really get to know who we are and in my case my writing is about trying to find myself. Essentially, I write for myself. Whenever I start a new book or story, I always write like no one is going to read my work. “In fact, the first stories I wrote was for myself, I had no intention of getting them published. But after I got published and won the Emirates Novel Award for The Guard of the Sun, I realised that I was no longer alone — people were reading, praising, critiquing my work. It can get to be overwhelming. It is not fun.”

The session was one of eight intellectual discussions organised by SIBF this year, which brought together a line-up of Emirati authors with their counterparts from countries such as Spain, Germany, France, Italy, Russia, to name a few.

Reading to cope

The whirlwind of emotions, including fear and anxiety, in the pandemic era has spawned a massive interest in books on mindfulness, said publishers at SIBF. At no time before has the world felt the need to improve emotional and physical wellbeing as much as it did this year. As the key to stress reduction and overall happiness, mindfulness, or the practice of consciously focusing attention on the present moment, has surged in popularity worldwide.

This has also reflected in the uptake of books on the subject at SIBF this year; one of the top sellers was ‘Zen — The Art of Simple Living’ by Shunmyo Masuno, which draws on centuries of wisdom to enable people to worry less about what cannot be controlled. UAE residents also read more books than usual during the COVID-19 pandemic to pass the hours at home and cut back on screen-time, visitors and exhibitors at SIBF told Gulf News. Work from home, distance learning and movement restrictions helped book sales online and at supermarkets, which stayed open even though bookshops remained closed during the national sterilisation programme earlier this year, SIBF exhibitors said. They added that self-help books and investment guides for the stock market saw an uptick, as did educational books for children.

Old is gold

While there were plenty of new books to choose from at SIBF, a pavilion stood out for their older offerings — rare books and atlases worth millions of dirhams, including those by Shakespeare, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Agatha Christie. A pavilion shared by three booksellers who specialise in antiquarian books — UK-based Peter Harrington; Antiquariat Inlibris; and Antiquariat At Forum — boasted several rare and collectable books on display. From Shakespeare to Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud to Agatha Christie, around 500 rare first-edition books were on display. Perhaps the crowning glory was a collection of books from the research library of Jean Jacques Pierre Desmaisons (1807-73), described as oriental scholar, diplomat, secret agent, and writer. It costs a staggering $1.24 million (around Dh4.55 million).

New normal

SIBF this year saw several precautionary measures in place to ward off the risk of coronavirus, including mandatory wearing of masks, thermal scanners at entrances, frequent disinfections, and four daily pre-booked visiting slots (each lasting three hours) to manage the crowd, with a wristband indicating each slot.

Following each edition of SIBF, the SBA normally announces the number of visitors from the event. The figures for the latest edition could be released soon, although it is too early to confirm. Last year, SIBF saw a record turnout of 2.52 million visitors.