The calls to prayer, broadcasting five times a day over the city of Sharjah—the capital of the emirate of Sharjah, third largest of the United Arab Emirates’ (U.A.E.) seven emirates—were both soothing and otherworldly.
The night view of the tallest building in the world—the 164-story-high Burj Khalifa—from the 63rd floor of a neighboring hotel was stunning and unforgettable.
Other highlights were my visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, the eighth largest in the world (five football fields in size), garbed in an abaya and headscarf; and a quick swing by the preposterously fun “Ski Dubai”—the first indoor ski resort in the Middle East—located in the glamorous Mall of the Emirates, one of the world’s largest shopping malls (imagine 18,000 parking places!).
Who knew there were 99 names for “gold” in Arabic! You can see why after visiting the Emirates Palace Hotel in Abu Dhabi—where each Sheikh of the seven U.A.E.’s emirates has his own wing of 40 rooms decked out with gold and marble, and where the “gold to go” “Gold ATM” in the lobby dispenses gold bars and jewelry.
This is merely a taste of the many over-the-top cultural experiences I took in on my recent visit to the U.A.E., where I headed this past November to represent Bookshare at the 32nd Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF). As Director of Content Acquisition for Benetech’s Global Literacy Program, which operates Bookshare, my key role is to engage with publishers in a deep conversation about the power of digital books to improve the lives of people at a reading disadvantage both here in the U.S. and around the world.
Over the years, we’ve developed strong relationships with publishers who share our values. These ethically responsible partners voluntarily submit high quality digital files directly to Bookshare and grant worldwide rights to their titles whenever held, ensuring that our Bookshare members with print disabilities—such as those who are blind or have learning disabilities, such as dyslexia—have the highest quality reading experience and can access new titles at the same time as the general public.
In the U.S. we’re making excellent progress towards solving the “accessible book famine,” but we’re well aware that our work to meet the global need for accessible content has just begun. Our goal is to bring Bookshare and other Global Literacy technologies we’re developing to many more people with print disabilities in more geographies and languages. To that end, we’ve established our Bookshare International initiative and are working hard to expand partnerships with the international publishing community.
There’s a great deal that happens on the way to a publisher’s signed Bookshare agreement—which is why I spend a major portion of my time traveling between Book Fairs and meetings with publishers and other stakeholders. The Sharjah International Book Fair was an unparalleled opportunity to present Bookshare to an invitation-only audience of 200 publishers from 35 countries participating in its three-day Professional Programme. I was able to meet publishers from seven Arab countries and a large contingent of publishers from India, gain insights into topics of interest—particularly piracy and distribution, the two dominant issues in this part of the world—and join in the orchestrated publisher
Organized by the UK Publishers Association, the Sharjah International Book Fair is now one of the four largest Book Fairs in the world. It runs for two weeks and this time attracted more than 800,000 attendees. The event was themed “For Love of the Written Word”—a title that well suited the sights of families with shopping carts maneuvering through the aisles, browsing hundreds of thousands of titles on display. In fact, publishers conduct half their annual business selling books at the Fair in addition to buying and selling translation rights.
One of the highlights of my trip was the opening of the Book Fair, presided over by His Highness, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Mohamed Al Qasimi, the Supreme Council Member and the Ruler of Sharjah. He is the Fair’s founder and sponsor and deeply committed to education and learning. It’s always dramatic to be in the presence of a Sheikh and witness the high-security arrangements!
Another highlight was the opportunity to meet again with the Sheikh’s daughter, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi. An international figure in Arabic publishing, she’s the Founder and CEO of Kalimat Publishing Group, which publishes a stunningly beautiful line of children’s books and has just launched a new imprint, “Horouf,” to provide books to the education market. She is also the Chairperson of the Emirates Publishers Association and the Director of the Knowledge without Borders project, an initiative that aims to nurture reading among Sharjah’s families. We first met in October of last year at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The annual Sharjah International Book Fair may be over but my work has just begun. I’ve got a long list of fantastic publishing leads to follow up with… and, after attending two key education technology publishing conferences in New York in December, an even longer list of publishers to bring on board.
Onward towards our goal of bringing access to books and information to the world’s people with print disabilities, no matter where they live!