During BookExpo America, I had the chance to sit down and talk with Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri, Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority. Launched in the Emirate of Sharjah, one of the states of the United Arab Emirates, in 2014, the Sharjah Book Authority runs the Sharjah International Book Fair—the fourth-largest largest book fair in the world. (The fair itself dates back to 1982.)
Al Ameri told me that the purpose of the fair is to build international relations through promoting books and literature. The fair sees $50 million in sales and 1.4 million visitors per year, and is the only ALA partner outside the US. 1,276 publishers participate, from all over the world, with 110 new publishers joining every year. That includes many of the biggest Western publishers, too.
The fair is for both print and electronic books, but Al Ameri said that a lack of electronic book content has been a big issue until recently. The reason is that most major e-book providers, such as Amazon, Apple, and Google, don’t include support for Arabic script in their e-reader platforms. There have been meetings over the last three years discussing adding such support, but it’s unclear when or if that will actually happen. Hence, many of the companies that come to Sharjah have developed their own Arabic e-book platforms. (Al Ameri didn’t mention any platforms specifically, but a quick Google turned up this article listing five of them.)
In the current political climate, Al Ameri said, it’s more important than ever to try to promote international understanding and act as ambassadors of Arabic culture through literature. As an example of Sharjah’s outreach, he pointed to the $300,000 translation grant that the Sharjah book fair has launched. The grant provides $50,000 for translating works between non-Arabic languages, and $250,000 for translating works from Arabic to any other language or vice versa. This program has resulted in the translation of 260 books so far.
Al Ameri also noted that Sharjah recently launched the world’s first virtual reality book. Children can read the book through their VR goggles and see it in 360 degrees—in English or Arabic with matching audio—and then take an interactive reading quiz, Al Ameri explained. The book is about the life of UAE founder Shaikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan.
Finally, Al Ameri discussed the “Home Library” initiative launched by Sharjah-based foundation Knowledge Without Borders. This program aims to create a home library in every Emirati household. Al Ameri explained the project distributes a coffee table bookshelf installation containing fifty books to each household, with the titles chosen based on the demographic makeup of the family. The books are all in Arabic, but the program’s $150 million US budget includes provisions to pay for US and other nations’ publishers to translate their books into Arabic for inclusion in the project. Al Ameri said that 18,000 of Sharjah’s 42,000 families have received such libraries so far, and the plan is to complete rollout to all households by the end of next year.
That program put me in mind of one of the facts I’d learned as I looked into Indianapolis’s new “Public Collection” program—that in thriving middle-class communities there are an average of 13 books available per person, but in low-income communities there is only one book per 300 people. The Public Collection community free libraries were seen as a way to help change that—but certainly, putting a miniature library into every household would be even better if you have the necessary resources. They’re using physical books for that, of course, but there’s no reason e-books and cheap tablets couldn’t be used for something similar in the US.
I am very grateful to Ahmed bin Rakkad Al Ameri for taking the time to speak with me, and letting me know about the programs the Sharjah Book Authority is involved in. I would definitely agree that in this politically-charged climate, greater understanding among all nations is called for, and greater literacy is a path to greater understanding. It’s also interesting to reflect that it was the distribution of Arabic wisdom in bygone centuries that helped put an end to the European Dark Ages, so they’ve certainly got precedent on their side when it comes to spreading knowledge and culture!
Another interesting aspect has to do with the e-book language issue. I don’t think most Westerners think about the problems posed to languages that don’t use the Latin alphabet. It stands to reason that e-book platforms developed in Latin languages would have a harder time adding support for non-Latin languages such as Arabic script—but for any e-book platform to be truly global, it needs to be able to support all the globe’s major languages. It remains to be seen if and when major platforms such as Amazon will be able to get there.