After a hiatus of nearly a decade, I found myself in the United Arab Emirates, also popularly imagined as ‘Dubai’ in Pakistan. I was traveling with a group of Pakistani writers, poets and photographers to attend the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF). I had been visiting the various UAE airports in transits over the last many years but never knew how this country, prospering with petrol dollars and supported by hardworking South Asian labour, had turned into a kind of modern paradise of consumerism, success and gold. More importantly, the UAE is now a melting port of various nationalities and cultures – a bit of a contradiction, given the puritanical reputation of Saudi Arabia and the historical narrations of Arab supremacy over the non-Arabs.
It was both exciting and disconcerting: displays of capitalist victories, thousands of poor South Asian workers, yet the promise of services, multiculturalism and some measure of tolerance. Perhaps these changing dynamics of the Emirati society are linked to events such as SIBF – a huge, multitudinous, undertaking involving 140 international publishers, agents and related crew, and for the first time, writers from South Asia. Sharjah’s ruler, Sheikh Dr. Sultan bin Muhammad al-Qassimi, is a unique Arab ruler for his interest in books and investments in publishing industry are rare traits in an Arab monarch. I trust that the Sheikh holds a doctorate and is an avid reader himself. I could not help wondering if he would have some positive influence on our ruling elites, whose relationship with books is far from enviable. The SIBF was held at the humungous Sharjah Expo Centre – a post post-modern building, with an amorphous architectural identity, but lots of space accommodating over 600,000 visitors of nearly all the nationalities that live in the UAE. South Asia and Pakistan received a special focus, and a brilliant ensemble of Pakistani writers attended the 10-day long festival at different occasions. […]