In pursuit of the reader
The 24th Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) threw into relief the publishing crisis in the Arab world, reports Rania Khallaf
from the Gulf
The first such event established in the Gulf area, the SIBF's 24th round (5-15 December), organised by the Culture and Information Sector in Sharjah, UAE, was held at the Expo Centre. At first sight the book fair -- whether in terms of display or facts and figures -- seemed to reveal a positive picture about publishing in the Arab world.
"With the participation of more than 800 Arab and foreign publishers, the SIBF has become a fixture on the Arab cultural agenda, coming only second in importance after the Cairo International Book Fair," commented Maher Al-Kayali, director of the Arab Organisation for Studies and Publishing, based in Lebanon. Al-Kayali praised Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohamed Al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah, himself a writer, for his "vital role" in "solving publishers' problems before and during the fair," and suggested that the SIBF's annual tradition of honouring distinguished publishers does much to promote the industry.
The facilities provided to visitors and exhibitors at the SIBF -- the information desks, the charts and pamphlets, the tidy and fairly large stalls of the private publishing houses -- give one the impression that publishers exhibiting at the event have nothing to complain about. But this proves a false first impression.
Samih Al-Awwam, publisher of Dar Al-Tali'a Al-Jadida in Syria, says that adding two exhibiting halls to the already existing two halls is a good move on the part of the organisers. "But," he adds, "the space is too empty given the limited number of visitors. It costs the publisher at least $ 1000 to hire a stall of nine metres. The expense of staying at a hotel is very high. The sales do not cover the expenses, to the extent that some exhibitors, especially those who hire bigger spaces, make very little profit."
Mahmoud Al-Khalidi, director of Assam bookshop in Abu Dhabi which acts as an agent of foreign publishers, suggests that "the number of exhibitors has increased this year, so I expect an increase of sales." But, though he has noted that English children's books are the titles that sell best, a phenomenon he attributes to the spread of private English language schools in Dubai and Sharjah, he adds that only 10 per cent of his clients are Arabs, the rest being Indians and foreigners who live in the Emirates.
Ahmed Eleesh, a salesman who works for the Lebanese Dar Al-Geel, says that the turnout of visitors at SIBF is low because "readers in United Arab Emirates have access to books all through the year through specialised bookstores and the Internet." The books that sell most, he continues, "are the ones that focus on Islamic and Arab history". "The problem," Al-Kayali suggests, "may be the timing of SIBF. The Kuwait Book Fair ended a week ago, and Qatar's Book Fair is due to start next week; this is the season for book fairs, which are always timed to take place during the school year."
At the stall of Dar Al-Muna, which publishes high quality literary children's books translated from Swedish to Arabic, parents and children were browsing the books avidly, but seemed reluctant to make purchases. Mona Henning, the publisher who received the SIBF's special prize this year, complains that the Arab writing for children is still in its early stages, which badly reflects on the sales of her books. "People think that my books are expensive. But the fact is that the content of the cheaper books they buy is shallow. Unfortunately, religious and educational books for children are usually the ones that sell most."
Adnan Salem, publisher of the Lebanese Dar Al-Fikr, also complains about low sales figures. In his view, the real problem is a lack of interest in reading among Arabs. "Even if you provide books for next to nothing, people would not read them if they do not have an interest in reading. The popular book series Iqra', published in the 1960s by Dar Al-Maaref in Egypt, was very successful; but the series was discontinued two or three decades ago for lack of people interested in reading."
A number of public seminars accompanied the SIBF. Addressing a large audience, prominent Algerian novelist Al-Tahir Wattar, who was awarded the Best Arab Writer Prize by the Ruler of Sharjah this year, criticised the Sharjah prize citation. This had lauded him as a writer steeped in local culture. He then went on to free-associate about the theme of the Arab writer and modernism. Some Arab writers, Wattar suggested, inject much ambiguity into their texts in imitation of Western modernism. "Modernism cannot be purchased," Wattar went on, "I was taught in religious schools. However, I gradually adopted modernism. Modernism is... a tool we should use; it should not alienate us from our readers." Arab writers' pursuit of international prizes through imitation of Western writing, in his view, has made "most of them ineffective in their own communities". Asked about his Berber origin, Wattar elaborated on the conflict between Arabic, French and Tamazight in North Africa, and added that "prominent Arab and Berber figures should cooperate in creating... interaction and dialogue between the two cultures."
"Arab intellectual contributions to world culture" was the title of an another seminar at which Sidki Al-Hattab, a Palestinian intellectual, and Ahmed Weld Tata, a prominent Mauritanian writer and professor of literature at Nouakchott University, gave presentations. Neither speaker's presentation directly related to the topic, but some interesting issues were raised. Al-Hattab spoke about earlier Arab contributions to world culture, citing the examples of Ibn Hazm and Ibn Khaldun who were translated into different European languages. Instead of going on to specify how the Arabs would regain their contribution to world culture, Al-Hattab gave an account of the history of the translation movement from Arabic since the 12th century. Tata pointed out that Arab and Muslim intellectual contributions must be based on critical realism in order to face future cultural challenges. "Arabs must develop their technological capabilities to cope with the Western technological supremacy," he commented.
Another seminar was devoted to debating the successes and failures of Arab joint publishing projects. Most publishers saw joint projects between publishing houses in different Arab countries as the best solution to the problem of book distribution between Arab countries. Ali Qameesh, representative of the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain, says that the aim of joint publishing projects is to support younger writers and researchers. According to Qameesh, The Bahraini Ministry of Culture pays all the publishing costs, and offers a biannual prize for distinguished books.
An issue raised by members of the audience was whether such projects would safeguard the intellectual rights of authors. Al-Kayali responded that "in some cases writers are offered royalties, and in other cases they only take a certain number of copies of the book. In the end, we do not force them to agree on any preconditions they do not like." His comment drew an angry response from a member of the audience: "Writers need money, not copies of books, in return for their contribution."
Problems of translation in the Arab world were the focus of another seminar. Said Al-Barghouti, a translator, asserted that there is an undeniable crisis in translation in the Arab world. "For example," he said, "Israel translates annually more than what all Arab countries put together translate in a given year." He attributes this crisis to the limited resources of publishing houses and the absence of a vision or integrated policy of translation.
Competition between print and electronic publishing was discussed in a seminar devoted to highlighting e-book ventures. Kassem Abu Hessna, from the National Heritage Centre for Electronic Programmes, based in Abu Dhabi, encouraged print publishers to cooperate with electronic publishers in order to facilitate the publishing process, and urged the SIBF organisers to allocate more space to electronic publishing companies. Omar Abdel-Aziz, an official from the Culture and Information Sector of Sharjah, pointed out to the need of an Arab search engine. "Arab researchers resort to Google and Yahoo, which cater for foreign choices, so there is limited Arab data available on the net. Investment in this field is essential."