UAE Ruler who mortgaged his gold dagger… to buy books

Sharjah: A city that made reading a lifestyle

SHARJAH 9 July 2017: The story of Sharjah’s momentous cultural experience began when the late Sheikh Mohammed bin Saqr Al Qasimi dedicated a gold dagger to his son, His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah.

He later mortgaged the dagger to buy books. With his thirst for knowledge, His Highness realised his dream of creating a culture-based capital, culminating in Sharjah being named the World Book Capital for 2019.

Sharjah’s journey as ‘Book Capital’ began more than four decades ago.

In a ground-breaking achievement, Sharjah has recently been crowned with the title of the World Book Capital for 2019 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco), an honour that comes in recognition of the emirate’s 40 years of hard work and efforts to realise the vision of the Ruler. Over the years, Sharjah has steadily established itself as global cultural destination for intellectuals, writers, thinkers, and publishers.

With its longsighted vision, Sharjah today is leading the cultural advancement of the Arab world, based on a worldwide inter-cultural, knowledge-based approach.

Sharjah International Book Fair

Sharjah’s image is reinforced through its unprecedented projects and pilot action programmes – since the inauguration of the first edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF) in 1982, it has grown over 35 years to become one of the top book fairs in the world.

Over this period, SIBF turned from a simple tent where a few Arab publishers and readers gathered, into a literary festival that annually attracts more than two million visitors from various corners of the globe and brings together over 1,500 publishing houses from many sisterly and friendly countries.

Besides SIBF and Sharjah’s influential cultural presence, the emirate of Sharjah is proud to be home to seven public libraries offering various sources of knowledge and books covering different genres of literature. The emirate offers a perfect environment for people to begin their journey into the world of reading through 600,000 books, periodicals, documents, manuscripts and other sources of knowledge in Arabic, English and several other languages.

The Unesco honour signals the fruition of immense efforts spearheaded by Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qassimi, Founder and President of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) and Head of Sharjah’s World Book Capital Organising Committee. The committee members include Ahmed Al Ameri, Chairman of Sharjah Book Authority (SBA), Marwa Al Aqroubi, President of the Executive Board of the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY), and Rashid Al Kous, former General Manager of Knowledge without Borders (KwB) and current Executive Director of EPA.

New Initiatives

Over the past three and a half decades, SIBF has continued to introduce new initiatives, expand exhibition areas and attract celebrated Arab and foreign literary figures. SIBF has deepened and broadened its vision by transforming from an annual book fair into an integrated cultural project, making Sharjah and the UAE a cultural hub in the region and wider world.

SIBF’s 35th edition featured 1,581 publishing houses, showcasing more than 1.5 million books under the theme ‘Read More’, proving the journey into the world of enlightenment can be achieved by constant accumulation of knowledge, ongoing effort and hard work. SIBF’s success also showed that the immense value of nurturing new generations of readers and intellectuals.

Since its first edition, SIBF has made landmark achievements, most notably hosting UNICEF at its third edition, as the first international organisation to participate in the fair. Over the years, SIBF increased the number of displayed titles five times in five years, from 12,000 titles at the second session to 65,000 at the seventh.

SIBF expanded its vision during its 11th edition from hosting publishing houses to organising an associated intellectual and cultural program combining top Arab and global cultural celebrities.

Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival: Investment in Future Generations Sharjah’s annual cultural calendar is packed with programmes and activities. Apart from its premier book fair (SIBF), the emirate organises Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF), a leading cultural event dedicated to nurturing a generation of young readers with a passion for knowledge by fostering a love of reading and knowledge through innovative and interactive methods.

Since its first edition in 2008, SCRF has been keen to combine pleasure and education and promote reading as a means to encourage young generations to realise the vision of Sharjah and the UAE in terms of its literary strategies.

With every new edition, SCRF introduces and diversifies its programmes to promote reading and enhances the value of books. Due to its forward-thinking plan, SCRF 2017 attracted over 300,000 visitors who flocked to attend a total of 1,403 events featuring 55 guests from 22 countries, while its associated cultural programme included 40 events that saw the participation of more than 60 guests from 23 countries.

Knowledge with Borders: Targeting Families The role played by SIBF and SCRF integrates with all the projects and initiatives launched by Sharjah in the pursuit of its cultural vision. Knowledge without Borders (KwB) has been dedicated to fostering a love of reading in the local community. The concept of KwB’s initiatives revolves around the establishment of a library in each Emirati household by providing Emirati families with a selection of valuable books in Arabic. A total of 42,000 Emirati families benefited from the initiative.

The initiative was launched under the generous patronage of His Highness Sheikh Dr. Sultan Al Qasimi and with the close follow up of Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, Head of the Organising Committee of KwB with the aim of establishing Sharjah as a capital of culture, knowledge and book in the UAE.

Sharjah turns into a giant library! The KwB initiative is an immense cultural project, which includes the ‘Home Library’ campaign, a unique global initiative that has recently provided home libraries to 42,366 Emirati households, with each library consisting of 50 books. It provided a total of 2,118,300 million books to Emirati households, underlining Sharjah’s claim as a capital of books as well as its status as a capital of culture, art, education and knowledge.

In 2016, KwB launched the 1,001 Titles’ initiative, which aimed to publish 1,001 Emirati books in Arabic covering various topics targeting all ages during 2016 and 2017. With a budget valued at AED 5 million, the initiatives funds participating publications completely or partially in alignment with the importance and quality of each title.

Themed ‘Nurturing Talent to Enrich Content,’ the initiative was launched under the directives of Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, Head of the Organising Committee of KwB and President of the Emirates Publishers Association. The 1001 Titles initiative aims to support Emirati and Arab publishing houses to enrich local cultural assets, ensure the sustainability of the publishing industry in the UAE, support Emirati authors and encourage them to write more books. It also aims to provide everything needed to ensure the continuity of the local, small and emerging publishing houses, encourage talented Emirati researchers to publish their work and promote the chances of Emirati publication to win Arab and international awards.

KwB also launched the ‘Knowledge Cart’ to provide patients in public hospitals with books. The initiative was introduced in recognition of the lengthy times that in-patients can spend in waiting rooms or during their recovery to facilitate access to books for those unable to travel to the library.

KwB continued to launch its pilot initiatives, notably the On-Board Library, in collaboration with Air Arabia, to increase awareness about the importance of reading as a lifestyle choice. The initiative seeks to inculcate a love of reading in passengers and ensure the importance of book as a lifetime companion of people wherever they go regardless of their age or educational level.

Another initiative is the mobile library, which has been designed to ensure that various community segments have access to books. The mobile library travels to homes, schools, universities, waiting rooms at government departments and public parks, among other destinations in an unprecedented move to disseminate culture and knowledge.

UAE Board on Books for Young People In 2009, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi established the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) to encourage the publishing and distribution of high quality Arabic children’s books in the UAE. It seeks to provide promising and professional authors and illustrators, as well as existing publishing houses in the country, with opportunities for networking, exchanging experiences and capacity building. UAEBBY also aims to provide support and training for professionals in the field of children’s literature.

UAEBBY launched the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, ‘Read, Dream and Create’ initiative, ‘Kan Yama Kan’ (Once upon a Time) initiative, and ‘Books-Made in the UAE’, among many other programmes to advance the children’s book industry in the UAE and Arab world.

In 2013, the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature launched the ‘Warsha’ programme to prepare a generation of talented Arab authors, illustrators and publishers of Arabic children’s books through workshops in illustration, writing, and publishing. It aims to build the capacity of Arab youths and enhance their skills consistent with the award’s vision to facilitate the creation of Arabic children’s books that are rooted in local Arabic culture and can compete and surpass international standards in children’s literature.

In 2013, The UAEBBY launched the ‘Read, Dream, Create’ campaign in order to bring children and books together, and support their creativity and innovation in writing children’s stories by developing their skills in writing stories and turning their ideas into stories written in a professional manner.

UAEBBY expanded its portfolio of initiatives, programmes and competitions. It organised the ‘Creative Writing’ contest to unleash children’s imagination, stimulate their cognitive abilities and raise their awareness of the basic creative arts of writing and illustration. The competition aims to hone children’s talent and trigger their creativity to transform their thoughts into creative materials through writing or drawing.

Emirates Publishers Association – Enhancing the local and Arab book industry Sharjah’s cultural aspirations have been reinforced with the infrastructure necessary to implement this large number of projects and initiatives, with special attention afforded to public libraries as a key pillar to entrench the culture of reading among community members.

The establishment of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) in 2009 was a vivid response to the flourishing publishing market and the book industry in Sharjah and the UAE.

EPA was established as an initiative by Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi to serve and develop the UAE’s publishing industry and advance the role of Emirati and Arab publishers and build their capacity through training programmes.

Since its inception, EPA has set a host of goals, most notably to represent the interests of professionals in the UAE’s publishing sector. It constantly works to improve the conditions and laws relating to the profession in coordination and cooperation with the National Media Council and relevant authorities concerned with publishing in the country and other partners in the GCC, Arab countries and the world.

EPA focusses on facts that reveal the reality of publishing in the UAE where studies show that the UAE’s overall publishing market in the country is estimated to be worth $260 million at present, with educational books in Arabic, practical information, heritage and children’s books showing excellent growth.

Recent studies demonstrate that the UAE is enjoying a leading position in the region with regard to laws and legislation governing the publishing industry, where all agreements relating to publishing rights are applied. The UAE is set to become a hub for leading international companies operating in the publishing industry and distribution for the Middle East, and is a gateway between Europe, the Arab world and South Asia.

Sharjah Publishing City the first of its kind in the world Sharjah has also adopted a proactive strategic vision to advance and develop the local, Arab and international publishing sector – an approach which has been reflected in the launch of Sharjah Publishing City (SPC) in line with the directives of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah. The exclusive free zone for publishing, the first of its kind in the world, aims to meet the needs of the publishing industry, offering opportunities for Emirati and Arab publishers looking to expand into book markets in the world. It also attracts industry professionals from across the world, opening doors to printing and distribution companies, as well as editorial and proofreading services, translation, design and others related to publishing.

SPC also aims to reinforce the emirate’s position as a global hub that attracts world- class professionals in the publishing and printing sector in all its forms, and support cultural movement and scientific research on local, regional and international levels. It strives to highlight the significant role of writers and their influence in promoting community awareness in view of the technological advancements and diversity of knowledge sources.

The publishing city also gives publishers the opportunity to benefit from the expected future returns of the sector, with the Arab book market importing books and materials worth $1 billion, with a growth rate of up to 11% annually. The Middle East’s fast-growing book industry targets nearly 950 million people in the region.

SPC is capitalising on a host of privileges and advantages enjoyed by Sharjah, such as its strategic geographic location and its ties with neighbouring countries as well as publishing and printing-related laws. Sharjah is a gateway to more than two billion people, where a third of the world’s population lives within a four-hour flight, and two-thirds are within an eight-hour flight. The emirate has direct access with ports overlooking both the Arabian Gulf and the Indian Ocean and has three seaports and an international airport offering competitive fees for air and sea freight services.

Sharjah is also home to several educational and academic institutions and universities as well as dozens of government projects and cultural initiatives that buy large quantities of books to distribute to citizens, schools, universities and institutions, offering opportunities for publishing investors.

Thanks to the inspiration vision of His Highness the Ruler of Sharjah the emirate continues its approach that aims to enhance the role of books and knowledge and celebrate authors, publishers, distributors and readers, and advance the publishing industry in the UAE and wider region. Owing to all these characteristics and qualities, Sharjah has become a permanent book capital and a destination for all those who want to explore the pleasure of reading and enjoy the vast world of books.

By Sheena Amos