This year Sharjah, one of the United Arab Emirates, is UNESCO World Book Capital. Which means the Sharjah International Book Fair, a major literary event in any year, is going to be even more spectacular in 2019.
UNESCO of course is one of the world’s great cultural institutions, but occasionally it can be the inadvertent harbinger of faux narratives.
Like the idea that Arabs don’t read.
Last month was the IPA Middle East Publishing Seminar, and as reported by Ben Steward on the IPA blog, a hoary old UNESCO statistic reared its ugly head.
Panel 2, examining the Role of the Publishing Industry in Humanitarian Response and Refugee Resettlement, was ably steered by Syrian journalist and TV presenter Zeina Yazigi, who opened with some shock stats taken from UNESCO:
• Arabs read a mere six minutes each per year on average.
• Just 6,500 books are published annually in the Arab World, compared to 100,000 in the US.
• One book is translated into Arabic per million Arabs.
• This region consumes just 1% of the world’s books.
I don’t know the origins of the UNESCO statistic that Arabs read for only 6 minutes a year, but with any such statement we need to allow that it might be way off mark, depending on how that statistic was arrived at.
Not here to wade into too many possible scenarios. Just to say that, for example, a survey taken in a remote Arab village with no access to books might conceivably get a result that Arabs read 6 minutes a year, while the same survey taken at the gates of a prestigious Arab university might conclude Arabs read six hours a day.
The issue I have with the statement, and its being raised apparently unchallenged and dutifully accepted by the panel at the Seminar, is that is flies in the face of clear evidence that, while Arabs may not be the biggest reading catchment on the planet, millions of Arabs are eagerly attending book fairs each year.
Millions? Is that perhaps hyperbole to make a point?
Not at all. I mean, literally, millions.
Next week two Arab book fairs will be running simultaneously at opposite ends of the MENA (Middle East North Africa) Arabic-speaking world.
One is the aforementioned Sharjah International Book Fair. The other the Algiers International Book Fair in Algeria.
Last year both fairs, again running simultaneous dates, each attracted a crowd of over two million visitors. No, that’s not a typo, and yes I did say each.
For comparison, the Frankfurt Book Fair that has just finished set a new attendance record this year by topping 300,000 visitors.
Yes, I know we’re not quite comparing like with like. Frankfurt is a trade-focussed event with a public element. Algiers and Sharjah are pubic-facing events with a trade element. But at the en of the day they are all book fairs.
So let’s just savour those numbers. Just weeks after the Frankfurt Book Fair attracted record crowd of 300,000, more than 4 million people will be cramming into two Arab book fairs in two MENA countries.
In Sharjah and in Algeria the biggest cultural events are book fairs.
And they are not alone.
In Saudi Arabia the biggest cultural event is a book fair.
The Riyadh International Book Fair alone attracted over 1 million visitors this year.
The Muscat International Book Fair in Oman also attracted over 1 million visitors this year.
The Baghdad International Book Fair also attracted over 1 million visitors this year.
The Casablanca International Book Fair in Morocco drew a crowd of 550,000 this year.
The Erbil International Book Fair in Iraqi Kurdistan attracted over 400,000 visitors this year.
No room here to list the book fair attendance across all the MENA countries, but let me just add Egypt, where this year attendance was down thanks to some issues with a new venue.
But despite a disappointing turnout of “only” 3 million, the Cairo International Book Fair retained its title as the world’s largest book fair.
And since 3 million is in the air, let me just add that in Dubai, also part of the United Arab emirates, Big Bad Wolf has just concluded its second gigantic eleven day 24/7 book sale. We don’t know the final visitor numbers yet, but last year Big Bad Wolf took 3 million books to Dubai, and this year it took the same number again. 3 million books shipped to an eleven day book fair in Dubai.
All told, somewhere between 12-15 million people will be attending Arab book fairs this year, many walking out with suitcases full of books.
Yes, there are serious challenges to bookselling in the Arab markets thanks to a mixture of topography, climate, variable literacy rates, government censorship, and many other issues. No-one is suggesting that the Arab book is a publishers’ paradise.
But clearly, and with all respect to UNESCO, the statistic that Arabs read for just six minutes a year the assertion is simply absurd.
The aforementioned book fairs, the Big Bad Wolf sale, and countless other literary events across MENA year after year show clearly that, if books are made available, accessible and affordable, the Arab readers are there.