SHARJAH, United Arab Emirates — Can books save the world? It may seem a fanciful, or even foolish, question. But if you consider how other alternatives are faring in the Middle East these days, it’s certainly worth pondering.
The tiny — and very conservative — Emirate of Sharjah, one of seven making up the UAE, has put itself at the center of a push to bring more books to the region: more writers, more publishing, more translating. The idea is that books can change perspectives, illuminate and, ultimately cultivate peace, development and understanding.
Sharjah also wants the publishing world to accept the controversial notion that deference to diversity requires flexibility in international publishing norms: censorship in the name of respect for cultural differences. Sharjah is leading a call for a debate about a key pillar of the International Publisher’s Association, the freedom to publish, which is the publishing world’s version of free speech.
The number of books published in Arab countries, including translations, is shockingly low. According to figures from the Frankfurt Book Fair, the 22 Arabic-speaking countries, with more than 360 million people, produce no more books than countries like Romania, with less than one-tenth the population, giving the region proportionally the lowest reading audience in the world.
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Sharjah — whose ruler is an accomplished and prolific author — was named the Cultural Capital of the Arab World and has spent decades promoting books. This month, it is hosting the 34th edition of its book festival, and doing it with a sense of urgency in light of the turbulence battering the region.
At the opening of the Fair the emir, Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed al Qasimi, noted the Arab world is passing through “dark times,” and exhorted the people to “put out the fire of sedition and raise the flag of knowledge.”
Spearheading the campaign is Sheikh Sultan’s daughter, Bodour al Qasimi who heads her own publishing firm and is a member of the executive committee of the International Publisher’s Association. Sheikha Bodour, as she is known, sees publishing as a path to building peace between cultures and erasing stereotypes and misconceptions. That includes publishing translations of Arabic books into other languages, to give the world a glimpse into Arab societies.
“When you read about other cultures,” she said, “you recognize things about your own culture; you find similarities rather than differences.”
She told me about her love affair with books, and her frustration when she had children and could not find great books in Arabic to read to them. She founded a children’s book publishing house and became the main patron of publishing in the emirate. Although she describes herself as a mother above all else, she demolishes stereotypes. The first time I went to Sharjah she was away, climbing Mount Kilimanjaro.
Sheikha Bodour helped bring the Arab Publishers’ Association Conference to Sharjah — where I was a guest — in the days leading up to the fair, a forum for discussing the problems affecting the industry. Arab publishers face the same mix of challenges as their colleagues around the world, including piracy, copyright violations and a business model threatened by technology. But privately, some publishers bemoaned the political obstacles to their work.
She called for a “healthy and respectful dialogue” about freedom to publish, maintaining that freedom to publish is a contentious issue today practically everywhere, including the United States and Europe, where there are debates about what should and should not be published.
Her father said, “Books are a beacon against ignorance,” but said no book should attack the principles of any religion. The Sharjah Book Authority, he explained, will examine the content of all books before they are available for sale in the emirate.
His daughter is trying to thread the needle. The conference staged a vigorous debate on whether any publication should be banned. That the session played out openly, with some panelists including Arab publishers and writers, calling for more freedom of expression, is a notable achievement.
In the short term, there is no chance books can stop wars. But in the long run books can play a part in opening the flow of ideas and integrating Arab societies more fully with the modern world. It is a complex path ahead, and the complexities are openly displayed today.