Since its inception in 1981, the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) has become the biggest of its kind in the region. This year, the exhibition, which will take place this month, is set to be the largest yet, with 2,033 publishers and exhibitors from 108 nations, both in the Arab and international spheres, taking part.
They will collectively present an impressive array of 1.5 million titles, with 600 authors from around the world attending to share their new works. The annual fair, which this year is running under the theme “We Speak Books”, is organised by the Sharjah Book Authority, which is dedicated to spreading the importance of reading and literature across the region and internationally.
Led by CEO H.E. Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, the Authority was established in 2014 by an Emiri decree of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, UAE Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah. The Authority participates in all major regional and international book fairs worldwide, helping to educate readers around the world about Arabic literature and the cultural scene in the UAE. Thanks to the work of the Authority, Sharjah is now recognised as a key hub for literature, not just on a regional scale but an international one. But there is still much to be done. Here, we talk to H.E. Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri to find out more about this year’s edition of the fair, as well as the mission and goals of the Sharjah Book Authority.
The level of development of Sharjah as a cultural authority is very impressive on a regional and global level – tell us more about this authority and what was the initial objective.
The Sharjah Book Authority was a vision of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi — a vision of building bridges between the East and West. Through the Authority, Sharjah has become a hub for literature, education and knowledge moving between areas and countries around the world.
The vision started in 1981 with the first edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair. Nobody thought it would work as it started with just a few publishers, but His Highness was confident, and he said, ‘No, we will see’. Today, it is one of the top book fairs in the world. It has set a benchmark for many countries that are more advanced and developed in literature and culture than us. What you see today is the glory of the Sharjah International Book Fair, Sharjah Reading Festival, and Sharjah Publishing City – the first free zone of its type in the world – and now you can see a lot of replicas of our concept and festival across the region. This all comes from the strength and vision that His Highness built, and that is what we are continuing to achieve by promoting the literature and the idea. We have launched many events over the years, which are not only showcasing Sharjah but showcasing the UAE with the world. We also have Sharjah Libraries, which was established in 1925 and will soon celebrate 100 years. We are becoming the global leader in the world of literature and culture. People meet at different book fairs around the world, and many are all older than us by hundreds of years, but they all want to come to Sharjah – that shows you how much we have succeeded already. We are becoming the benchmark for many countries. We started as a cultural organisation, but we are now having a great impact in business and in literature. We are now seeing around 158 Arabic books being translated per year into other languages. We are becoming global, and it’s a huge success for Sharjah, for the UAE and for the region.
What were the challenges of placing Sharjah on the global map?
The unique thing about the UAE is that our Rulers themselves are poets, writers, and authors. His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi has written over 58 books, and he’s still writing more. If they are not writers themselves, our leaders all enjoy poetry, art, and culture, and that makes us unique. Taking that, His Highness decided to focus on human mentality and achieve his goals through literature and education and through supporting families. Sharjah became the world book capital, it became the cultural capital of the Arab world, it became the Islamic cultural capital, and it is being recognised internationally because of this. When we are participating internationally, it shows you the importance of the treasure that we have. There is a different mentality, and the biggest challenge we face is how to speak to others and share this point of view. It’s not only about saying what’s in your mind but also how to say it, and we are becoming experts in how we talk to others.
And how do you talk to others – what is the secret to succeeding in this?
There is no secret, but when you speak to others, you need to understand their culture and speak to them in a way that relates. You must speak to each one in their language and in a way they can understand.
How has digitalization affected what you do?
Digitalisation, eBooks, audiobooks are all trends. It is like a wave. When eBooks first came out, everyone thought that paper books were over. But actually, eBooks today are on the decline for many reasons. They are not profitable, Readers don’t maintain the information as well, and you can’t feel the emotion through an eBook. Today, the new trend is audiobooks and podcasts – yes, this is a way of reading, and we support every kind of reading regardless, but we, as the Sharjah Book Authority, want people to read, no matter the medium.
For me, I like how you can go back to certain pages in a physical book, and you can know how much you have left and keep it with you; with digital, you cannot do this. We are supporting digital and AI because we cannot say no to these trends; we have to support everything and work with countries, communities and people around the world to achieve our main goal of spreading Arabic literature to the world.
Tell us about this year’s edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair.
108 countries are participating in this year’s fair, more than half of the world! We have very big-name authors coming from around the world, many authors from the Arab region. It’s a huge milestone.
How do you promote the authority and the fair around the world, and how do you get these big-name authors to be part of the fair?
All our authors and guests have written a book – that is the prerequisite to come to the fair. There are many ways we connect with these people – agencies, publishers, etc. – but the real way we connect is through the books. If you see a celebrity coming to the fair, for example, it’s because he has written a book – this is the theme throughout. We are not into promotion or marketing; we are into literature, and that is what it is all about: reaching communities through this literature. Each guest we have had has fallen in love with Sharjah, and through this wide variety of guests, we are able to reach different communities, genders, and groups. We had Dan Brown at the fair, for example. He wrote about Sharjah and Dubai in one of his books. Trevor Noah came to the fair, and he spoke about Sharjah on his podcast. All of these guests have their books, and that is where it starts, but it allows us to connect with people, and that is the goal.
What made you fall in love with reading?
It’s about believing. When you believe in something, it’s power. When I was a kid, I used to be fascinated by comics. This is where I started falling in love with reading, and this opened my mind. You open your mind, and you open everything. Regardless of your faith or culture, our biggest enemy is ignorance. Ignorance can make you misunderstand others. So, from comics, I started to become attached to books – I read everything: fiction, non-fiction, novels. To me, this is all enjoyable.
On a personal and a business level, what do you still aim to achieve?
At Sharjah Book Authority, the main goal is that we want everyone to read. We want the new generation to read. It’s becoming more challenging because there are so many distractions, and to reach out to these people and to get across to them how important it is to be reading books is challenging. Technology is changing, and with the trends that we spoke about before, every day, you find something new that can impact the mission, and it is challenging. Therefore, we started to work with celebrities who have books, and we try to make people who have never picked up books before want to read again. But it takes time.
Personally, I believe there is no stopping to learning through reading. Reading allows us to understand more, and life is challenging, so we must keep reading at any age.
What is the personal motto that you live by?
I believe that anything negative in your life can be positive. If something bad happens to you, it can actually be good for you as you learn from challenges, and you learn from mistakes. You may not see how something bad can be good for you in that moment, but in the future, you will. So, I think it’s very important to change negatives in life into positives.
What is a book that really helped you to change your mindset?
The Holy Quran.
As an Authority do you collaborate with other cultural bodies on a country level and a regional level?
We collaborate internationally with many countries and destinations around the world – New York, London, Delhi, Bologna, Moscow and many more – in all these collaborations, we showcase not only Sharjah but the whole of the UAE. We have collaborations with universities around the world, in New York in Milan. In Milan, we organise the biggest Arabic literature festival in Europe at the Catholic University, one of the oldest in Italy. We did a huge translation of Arabic literature, translating books from some of the biggest Emirati authors. We did the digitalisation of manuscripts with one of the oldest libraries in Italy. We host literacy days and events in various locations around the world, and we have contributions to key libraries. We have a huge network around the world, and it is key to supporting the power of literature and in particular, the power of Arabic literature. In the beginning, we were the only Arab country participating in events and fairs around the world, and now I’m so proud to see so many other Arab countries taking part.
What is a message you would send to our readers?
Whatever you are into, be it fashion, music, sport, or lifestyle, there is always a book you can read and enjoy building your knowledge. Reading books opens your mind, so read between the lines.
If you were to give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?