A tale of two emi­rates

The Pak Banker - - Front Page -

SHAR­JAH is just about the last place on earth I would have as­so­ci­ated with books, so I was pleas­antly sur­prised to learn that the Gulf emi­rate has been hold­ing an an­nual book fair for over 30 years. This year, the fo­cus was on Pak­istan, so a bunch of writ­ers from our coun­try were in­vited, in­clud­ing this one.

The event was held in the large Expo Cen­tre, and pub­lish­ers from over 50 coun­tries had set up their stalls. Ob­vi­ously, the Arab-speak­ing world was strongly rep­re­sented, but In­dian, Pak­istani, Chi­nese and Euro­pean pub­lish­ers were present as well, mak­ing it a truly in­ter­na­tional event.

The Shar­jah Book Fair en­joys the ac­tive sup­port of its emir, Shaikh Sul­tan bin Mo­hammed Al-Qasimi, an en­light­ened ruler who has been a strong ad­vo­cate of ed­u­ca­tion and cul­ture. In fact, he is deeply in­volved in run­ning the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Shar­jah, his pride and joy. I was in­vited to speak about my book, Fatal Fault­lines, to students at this strik­ing cam­pus, and the fa­cil­i­ties were cer­tainly world class. In fact, it is widely con­sid­ered the finest univer­sity in the Arab world.

I was proudly told by a se­nior fac­ulty mem­ber that Al-Qasimi had per­son­ally de­signed much of the cam­pus. I could well be­lieve this as the build­ings re­minded me of a film set for Ara­bian Nights with vast domes and large ex­panses of tiles con­nect­ing the var­i­ous de­part­ments. Clean­ing and air- con­di­tion­ing these huge spa­ces must tax the re­sources of even this rich emi­rate. The students I spoke to were ex­tremely bright and ar­tic­u­late; clearly the univer­sity at­tracts the cream of young peo­ple from the re­gion.

I was a bit taken aback to learn that the en­tire fac­ulty was com­posed of ex­pa­tri­ates, and all had some con­nec­tion to the United States. The stu­dent body of over 5,000, too, re­flects the de­mo­graphic diver­sity of the pop­u­la­tion of the UAE. Only 15 years old, the univer­sity is al­ready play­ing a big role in pro­duc­ing welle­d­u­cated grad­u­ates.Al­though I was present for only four days of the fair’s two weeks, I was im­pressed by the large crowds milling through the Expo Cen­tre. Last year, the event pulled in over 500,000 vis­i­tors, and I’m sure this year’s book fair will draw even more. I was asked to join a panel of lo­cal jour­nal­ists for a dis­cus­sion about the place of cul­tural re­port­ing in jour­nal­ism. I was puz­zled by the theme, but then dis­cov­ered that writ­ers had a grouse with ed­i­tors of the UAE press over the lim­ited space and im­por­tance their ar­ti­cles on cul­ture re­ceived. I made the point that for me, there was no di­vid­ing line be­tween cul­ture and pol­i­tics: in­deed, cul­ture per­vades ev­ery as­pect of our lives.

For years, I had con­sid­ered Shar­jah to be a sub­urb of Dubai, but af­ter spend­ing a few days there, I re­alised that the two emi­rates dif­fer in im­por­tant ways. Dubai has seen an enor­mous in­vest­ment in build­ings and in­fra­struc­ture in re­cent years. Wide, multi-lane high­ways and fly­overs criss-cross the emi­rate, and a sleek, mod­ernistic over­head train tra­verses much of its length. Tall sky­scrapers – many of them halted in mid-con­struc­tion dur­ing the re­cent slump – dom­i­nate the cityscape.

Traf­fic flows quickly in much of Dubai, in marked con­trast to Shar­jah where nar­row roads cause acute con­ges­tions, es­pe­cially in the af­ter­noons when thou­sands are re­turn­ing from work in Dubai. Ap­par­ently, rents are lower in Shar­jah, so peo­ple com­mute daily be­tween the two neigh­bour­ing emi­rates.

But the dif­fer­ence is more than phys­i­cal: the two tiny states re­flect the out­look of their re­spec­tive rul­ing fam­i­lies. In Shar­jah, tra­di­tional val­ues still pre­vail, and the pace is much slower. Dubai is flashier and more out­ward look­ing. Per­haps the dif­fer­ence be­tween the two is best cap­tured by the fact that in Dubai, thirsty for­eign­ers can eas­ily get a drink while Shar­jah is com­pletely dry.

This caused con­sid­er­able con­ster­na­tion among a few mem­bers of the Pak­istani con­tin­gent. But thanks to the gen­er­ous hos­pi­tal­ity of a key lo­cal vol­un­teer, evenings were not the sober af­fairs they might oth­er­wise have been.

In­ter­act­ing, even briefly, with a mar­vel­lously tal­ented crop of young Pak­istani writ­ers was great fun. Present, too, were ace pho­tog­ra­phers Tapu Javeri and Arif Mah­mood. Among the Pak­istani writ­ers at the book fair were Muhammed Hanif; Raza Rumi; Nadeem As­lam; Sal­man Ah­mad of Janoon, and au­thor of Rock and Roll Ji­had; Mushar­raf Ali Fa­rooqi; and HM Naqvi. Fehmida Riaz and Afzal Ahmed Syed were the two fa­mous Pak­istani po­ets at the book fair.

Pankaj Mishra, the pro­lific In­dian writer, spoke to Raza Rumi about his new book The Ruins of Em­pire. Sadly, I had a Dawn dead­line to meet, and missed the talk as the next day, I was go­ing to the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, an um­brella for scores of pri­vate gal­leries from around the world. Many Arab artists were on dis­play, and I was im­pressed by the range and qual­ity of paint­ings on sale. The star of the Shar­jah Book Fair for me was Arund­hati Roy, the fa­mous In­dian nov­el­ist and es­say­ist who has been cru­sad­ing for the dis­pos­sessed and the voice­less for years. She has spent a lot of time with Kash­miris and the Nax­alites, among oth­ers, in her pas­sion­ate cam­paign for their rights. Read­ing from her book The God of Small Things, and speak­ing about the is­sues that move her, Ms Roy en­thralled the large, stand­ing-room only crowd.

Present in the au­di­ence was the In­dian con­sul-gen­eral who made a bit of a fool of him­self by his long-winded in­ter­ven­tions and ques­tions. I have no doubt he was do­ing so to fig­ure promi­nently in the of­fi­cial re­port he would send to the In­dian for­eign of­fice. To my sur­prise, Ms Roy re­frained from the crush­ing replies she is ca­pa­ble of, and which he so richly de­served.

Her fo­cus has long been the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of In­dia’s rapid eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment on the most down­trod­den sec­tions of so­ci­ety. She un­der­lined the huge dis­par­i­ties that continue to widen among the rich and the poor, and de­plored the self­ish­ness of the In­dian elites. Sadly, much the same cri­tique can be made of Pak­istan. Fi­nally, a word of thanks to Elis­a­bet Hohl and Farid Alvie for their or­gan­i­sa­tional skills, kind­ness and end­less pa­tience.

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