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Flanders Literature Attends Its First Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates

Early November, two representatives of Flanders Literature attended the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates – the Arab world’s largest and most important fair for international rights. Having exchanged the Middle Eastern heat for typically Flemish autumn weather, director Koen Van Bockstal and fiction specialist Michiel Scharpé look back on their experiences.

Stacks and stacks of books

One thing that struck us was the Sheik’s great personal involvement in his emirate’s cultural and literary life. We think we know the Arab world, but our perception is coloured by the information we receive daily in the western media. In Sharjah we saw another side to the story. Believing it benefits the population and constitutes an effective way of preventing extremism, there is a great deal of investment in education and culture. No expense or trouble is spared to introduce young people to literature and other forms of culture. All day long, school classes swarm across the book fair. And the beautiful thing is that many of these children return in the evening or at the weekend – together with their parents.

There are not that many bookstores in either the emirate or – so we were told – other parts of the Arab world. Books are often sold on the internet rather than in shops, and also via a large number of fairs where publishers sell directly to readers. In contrast to the Antwerp Book Fair, where books are neatly displayed on tables and on shelves, Sharjah tends to boast stacks of them – as well as people going home laden with books.

Keen interest

Michiel Scharpé (Flanders Literature) and Mohamed El-Baaly (Sefsafa Publishing House), with the Arabic edition of 'The Aunts'

There is a lot of interest in European literature. In years to come, the Arab world could potentially become an attractive sales territory, especially for fiction, non-fiction and children’s and young adult literature. Because in many Arab countries the retail price of books is quite a bit lower than in ours, the margins for Flemish publishers and authors will be less generous. Then again, we are looking at a market of 422 million Arabic speakers.

Flanders Literature received a warm welcome in Sharjah. We encountered a great openness and curiosity about the work of our authors. Unsurprisingly, our richly illustrated children’s and young adult books were particularly popular with publishers. At the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna and elsewhere in the world, we always experience a keen interest in Flemish illustrated books – and so too in Sharjah. Titles from the Flemish canon and contemporary classics by the likes of Stefan Hertmans also met with considerable interest. Following a conversation with Flanders Literature in Sharjah, Dar Oktob from Cairo bought the rights to ‘A Day With Mr. Jules’ by Diane Broeckhoven (Uitgeverij Vrijdag). The same publisher is still negotiating over other Flemish titles.

The number of good to excellent literary translators from Dutch into Arabic is limited at present, which will certainly be a challenge in the short term. As it has done with respect to the Chinese market, Flanders Literature will have to accept – especially in the early stages – that translations are done via a relay language (in other words, via French, English or German) to ensure that publishers’ interest in specific works will be converted into publications.

To be continued

There are indications that this first visit to the Sharjah International Book Fair will lead to several translations, although it is still too early to make any conclusive statements on titles and numbers. What we do know is that the story of our visit to the United Arab Emirates does not end with our return to Belgium. Not only will we see Arabic translations of Flemish titles, but there is every chance that Flanders Literature will be back in Sharjah next year.

Dec 4th, 2017