Last month the second Saudi Arabia Comic Con took place. Numbers are just in and 25,000 people turned up for the event in Riyadh.

This past week Saudi cinema re-opened after 35 years, and the first film shown was Marvel’s Black Panther. While In Dubai the Middle East Film and Comic Con attracted 60,000 visitors, with Sharjah-based UAE publisher Kalimat announcing its first venture into comics and graphic novels.

The 2nd Saudi Arabia Comic Con. Marvel’s Black Panther to open the newly legalized Saudi cinema. Kalimat sets up a comics imprint. The Arab Renaissance embraces comics

Not long finished is the Alexandria Book Fair in Egypt, where 60,000 turned out.
That was the second major Egyptian book fair. In January the Cairo International Book Fair saw an absolute minimum of 2.5 million visitors, with unconfirmed reports suggesting it may have hit 3.9 million. The Cairo IBF will now be held twice a year, to meet demand.
In February the Casablanca IBF may have fallen short of its expected 350,000 visitors due to exceptionally harsh winter conditions (UPDATE – despite the extreme weather the Casablanca IBF broke records with 520,000 turning out for the event), but the Muscat IBF in Oman was expecting (waiting on confirmed figures) over 800,000,
In Saudi Arabia the Qassim Book Fair debuted, followed by the big Riyadh International Book Fair, where 375,000 were expected. Again, waiting on confirmed figures for the whole event, but we do know 18,300 children visited the Children’s Pavilion.
March also saw the Baghdad International Book Fair in Iraq (300,000) and the Bahrain International Book Fair, where 220,000 turned out.
In April the aforementioned Alexandria Fair in Egypt was joined by another Iraqi fair, this time the Erbil Book Fair in Kurdistan, and another Morocco fair – this time the Casablanca National Book Fair.
We also had the Tunis International Book Fair this month.
Happening right now in Dubai is the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival. 306,000 people turned out last year. (Update – 250,000 in 2018.)
In a couple of days time the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair opens, with 300,000 visitors expected.
Staying in the region, but moving beyond the Arab world, the first week of May will see the Tehran International Book Fair prepare to welcome its regular 2 million plus visitors.
In that little five month snapshot alone we see, (excluding the Iran event) upwards of 5 million people attending Arab book fairs.
Later in the year we have the Algiers IBF which in 2017 clocked 1.7 million visitors, and the Sharjah IBF which last year clocked 2.4 million visitors.

Record-breaking Sharjah Int. Book Fair – 2.38 million visitors. $56 million book sales in eleven days

Weave in the many smaller festivals, and any big events I may have missed in this brief excursion, and we are looking at significantly over ten million people this year physically attending book fairs and festivals just in the MENA (Middle East North Africa) region.
Just this month Sweden’s Storytel launched in the UAE with its audiobook streaming service, even as the Big 5 western digital book retailers continue to look the other way.
It should be no surprise then that Middle East publishers are becoming bolder and more adventurous.
As The Bookseller reported this past week, Sharjah’s foremost children’s publisher Kalimat is ‘challenging boundaries’ with an adult fiction list.

Sharjah publishing house Kalimat will later this month launch the first Arabic language translations of two books by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, including her title Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions. The books will be launched at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, which opens on 25th April.
Kalimat has acquired all-territory Arabic language rights to the whole of Adichie’s oeuvre, and will follow up with a launch of the translated novels – which include her debut Purple Hibiscus and Americanah – at the Sharjah International Book Fair in the autumn. Kalimat’s founder and c.e.o. Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi told The Bookseller: “She is such an important voice for women and I am so excited to be publishing her.”

Speaking to The Bookseller at the London Book Fair earlier this month, Al Qasimi said,

The adult fiction imprint has been very interesting and a big jump for us. We have published Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, books which have not been translated into the Arabic language before. They are pushing the boundaries – books like these have great content, but content has been a little restricted in the Arab world. For us to be publishing literature that is challenging traditional boundaries is an interesting jump and a very important one.

Meanwhile in the more conservative Qatar, the Katara Publishing House has been launched, publishing in Arabic, French and English.
Four years ago the Katara Prize for the Arabic Novel launched, offering a prize of $200,000, with the winning titles published by the Katara Cultural Village.
The Katara Publishing House will represent Qatar at Arab and international book fairs and exhibitions.
Said Katara Publishing House manager Khalid al-Sayed,

Every year, we have been publishing about 60 novels under the Katara Novels project plus other books on Qatari history, culture, heritage and traditions. We wanted to bring all these under one umbrella to make publishing more professional and systematic.
We want to promote writers and the publishing industry in Qatar. Katara Publishing House will serve as a link between readers and writers. We have plans to promote e-books and audio books, which are the new trends worldwide. There are a lot of other activities being planned, which will be announced later. We want to give a big push to publishing business in Qatar on a commercial level.

Meanwhile in Dubai the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival is attracting big crowds.
As ever, most of the big Arab events are getting little attention in the west, so kudos to Porter Anderson for his excellent coverage of the region’s publishing scene over at Publishing Perspectives.
But bizarrely I need to turn to Pakistan for the best coverage of the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, where the Daily Pakistan global edition has been covering the event both at the trade and the consumer level.

The Daily Pakistan reports on how the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) has been working with the International Board on Book’s Italian arm at the festival.
One report observed,

The highlight of the day was a discussion titled ‘The Children’s Book Culture in Italy’ featuring Dr Marcella Terrusi, Representative of the IBBY Italy, and award-winning author of the first international critique on silent books and researcher on ‘silent’ or wordless books and children’s literature; Elena Pasoli, Manager of Bologna Children’s Book Fair; children’s book expert, Grazia Gotti, and Emirati author and illustrator, Alia Al Shamsi.
Much of the discussion revolved around how IBBY Italy, one of the first sections of the international organisation since its establishment in 1953 and reformation in 2003 with the support of Bologna University and a central role played by Gotti, has supported reading promotion initiatives with a particular attention to remote or disadvantaged areas, alongside promoting the work of the best Italian authors, illustrators, translators and editors, by nominating them to the prestigious international awards such as the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the IBBY Honour List, the Biennial of Illustrations of Bratislava and the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award.

The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival theme for 2018 is

Your Future… Just a Book Away,

which encapsulates the spirit of the Arab Renaissance unfolding.
The global book markets have never been more vibrant, nor more exciting.