Book fair writes an­other suc­cess­ful chap­ter for it­self

It is not by luck that the Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional Book Fair has grown over the past 27 years. It takes a great deal of hard work from or­gan­is­ers and au­thors to sell­ers and cater­ing teams, writes Saeed Saeed

The National - News - The Review - - Roundup - Saeed Saeed is the ed­i­tor of Arts & Life at The Na­tional

The Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional Book Fair com­pleted its 27th edi­tion on Tues­day. On the sur­face the event did what it was de­signed to do. Thou­sands of books were sold, lit­er­ary awards were handed out, a new pub­lish­ing house was an­nounced, pub­lish­ing deals were signed and au­thors’ works were snapped up in lan­guages rang­ing from Chi­nese to Turk­ish.

But it is only when you spend a se­ri­ous amount of time at the fair, held at the Abu Dhabi Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion Cen­tre, that you wit­ness the lit­tle mo­ments and see the threads that make it unique.

Make no mis­take, the book fair is a trav­el­ling cir­cus.

There are the book traders who func­tion al­most like road­ies, with Abu Dhabi be­ing part of an es­tab­lished route that in­cludes Cairo and Doha ear­lier in the year and Tehran and La­gos next week. All that trav­el­ling, pack­ing and un­pack­ing of books can be tir­ing at best; hence Idriss Mears’s de­ci­sion to carve him­self a space on the floor for cof­fee breaks be­side his Black­stone & Holy­well stand, which spe­cialises in spir­i­tual lit­er­a­ture.

“This is my spot,” Mears states. “It’s just a place for me to have my cof­fee, eat a sand­wich, do some work and just take a breather.”

Mears’s rest breaks un­wit­tingly made him one of the faces of the book fair – a pho­tog­ra­pher for a daily Ara­bic news­pa­per snapped a front cover im­age of him cross-legged for the fol­low­ing day’s edi­tion. Not every­one was do­ing it rough. The Al Mul­taqa Lit­er­ary Salon re­mains one of the most lav­ish pavil­ions to ever grace a book fair. The space re­sem­bles an op­u­lent liv­ing room with plush couches, warm light­ing and walls fes­tooned with western and Asian in­spired paint­ings. Waiters are al­ways on the move, serv­ing a whole ar­ray of bite-sized treats, in­clud­ing sand­wiches, burg­ers and pas­tries.

More than the crea­ture com­forts, how­ever, the Al Mul­taqa re­mains one of the most suc­cess­ful book clubs in the Arab world. Or­gan­ised by founder Asma Sed­diq Al Mutawaa, the group meets ev­ery two weeks in Abu Dhabi and has been in­cluded as a mem­ber of the Unesco Book Clubs.

A hall­mark of the salon is that au­thors are asked prob­ing ques­tions – as best-sell­ing Turk­ish writer and poet Tuna Kiremitci found out on Thurs­day. He ar­rived in the cap­i­tal to dis­cuss his 2007 novel, Prayers Stay the Same, which re­cently re­ceived an Ara­bic trans­la­tion. Re­volv­ing around the ex­tended con­ver­sa­tion be­tween an el­derly Jewish woman who had found refuge in Is­tan­bul dur­ing World War Two and a young Mus­lim girl grown up in a tur­bu­lent house­hold, Prayers Stay the Same re­ceived a mixed re­sponse from the salon.

“I don’t like the ti­tle of your book, it is not ac­cu­rate,” be­gan Al Mutawaa. “What do you mean they are the same,” an­other mem­ber says in­dig­nantly. “Jewish peo­ple have their own prayer and we have ours. Per­haps you may have been con­fused from your up­bring­ing?”

An older re­gal woman in a bil­low­ing white dress is even more di­rect: “Don’t we have enough sto­ries about the Holo­caust al­ready? Why can’t you tell our sto­ries more?”

Af­ter a ragged start of po­lite answers, Kiremitci warms up and en­gaged in thought­ful dis­cus­sion on how lit­er­a­ture can act as a bridge be­tween cul­tures and re­li­gions.

“I have to say I never went to a ses­sion such at this,” he says in his clos­ing re­marks. “This has been a won­der­ful dis­cus­sion and be­lieve me I learned a lot about my­self from all of you.” In the au­di­ence is Mehmet Demir­tas, the di­rec­tor of the Is­tan­bul Tan­pinar Lit­er­a­ture Fes­ti­val. A sea­soned vis­i­tor to the book fair, he in­vites me to the Ger­man book fair stand for “a lit­tle party”. The Teu­tonic min­i­mal­ism of the space al­lows the nearly 50 guests to fit com­fort­ably as waiters pass around a not ex­actly Ger­man treat of tem­pura prawns.

Af­ter Clau­dia Do­bry from the Frankfurt Book Fair joins us, I re­ceive a course in what Demir­tas de­scribes as “book fair dy­nam­ics”. Do­bry says the book fair cir­cuit has its own equiv­a­lent of the ten­nis grand slam tour­na­ments. “We also have the big four,” she ex­plains. “There is our own in Frankfurt, of course. Then there is Lon­don Book Fair, Bei­jing and Guadalajara. We are par­tic­u­larly ex­cited about Bei­jing and Guadalajara as there is grow­ing read­er­ship for Ger­man books in these mar­kets.”

I re­turn on the penul­ti­mate day of the book fair to see the traders be­gin­ning the pack­ing process. Mears, on the other hand, is in the midst of the fi­nal rush of sales. He dis­creetly pulls me aside to the cor­ner of the stand for a pri­vate chat.

He nods to an el­derly western gen­tle­men, dressed in a smart suit, who is brows­ing books about Is­lamic his­tory.

“He con­verted to Is­lam 10 days ago,” he ex­plains. “He is a welle­d­u­cated man and was look­ing for books about the faith that is not too ba­sic but deep re­search. I have been help­ing him cu­rate a book, a kind of work­ing kit for him.” More than the sales, Mears says mo­ments like these keeps him re­turn­ing to Abu Dhabi. “I be­lieve that ev­ery book has some­one who is look­ing for it,” he says.

“I am a fa­cil­i­ta­tor. It is my job to bring the book and per­son to­gether.”

Mona Al Mar­zooqi / The Na­tional

The 27th Abu Dhabi In­ter­na­tional book fair was a huge suc­cess with vis­i­tors both old and young.

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