So I’m back from five days at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates and beginning to recover from the hideous jet lag and nearly 24 hours of travel (each way, counting layovers and plane delays) that it took to get there. Since I’m still not quite mentally ready to tackle a regular blog post, you get a trip report today.
When I was first invited to the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, I knew nothing whatever about it. My agent, however, did, and strongly recommended that I attend. The Children’s Reading Festival is one of the two book festivals held annually in Sharjah, and according to my agent, they are fast becoming the Bologna Book Fair and Frankfurt Book Fair of the Middle East. (For those of you who’ve never heard of any of this, those two are the premier places that agents and publishers’ reps go every year in order to sell translation rights. The Bologna fair focuses on children’s and YA; the Frankfurt fair covers everything.)
So I was excited. Also nervous – I haven’t done any of the international book fairs before, though there are quite a lot of them and some authors book a lot of Frequent Flyer miles making appearances at them. But definitely excited, both by the opportunity to visit a part of the world I hadn’t been to before and also, let’s be honest here, by the opportunity to get away from the SNOW we’ve still been having here. (I had to shovel my walk the Tuesday before I left; my flight home was delayed because there was a blizzard in Minneapolis and the plane that was supposed to go round-trip from Minneapolis to New York and back had deicing problems and got in to NY two hours late…but that’s a whole ‘nother story.)
Anyway, after a brief false start (I realized one block from the house that I’d forgotten to pack any copies of my books; fortunately, we had time to turn around and collect them), I was off. I left for the airport at 9:30 on Saturday morning and arrived at the hotel at 8:30 Sunday evening. Even with a 9-hour time difference and a five-hour layover in Dallas, it was a very long trip. Luckily for me, Emirates Air Lines is extremely comfortable.
The weather, on the other hand, was a bit of a shock. It was in the upper 80’s every day, with a nighttime low of 72 – that was about 60 degrees warmer than Minnesota (snow, remember? In April! Aaargh!), and it took some adjusting. Then I discovered that the day before I arrived, one of the other writers had had his school visit canceled on account of rain. Like a snow day, only…different. It makes sense when you consider that the streets aren’t designed for drainage, so an inch or two of rain ends up causing two-foot-deep puddles that stall cars, but it certainly drove home that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Or Minnesota.
Sharjah and Dubai impressed me as probably the most cosmopolitan place I have ever been, and that includes New York, London, and Paris. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after all, the Middle East has been the crossroads of the world for thousands of years. The main reason, I think, is that in Sharjah nearly everything operated on the assumption that there would be people of multiple cultures and languages to deal with. Nearly all the signs and billboards were in both English and Arabic; several also included Japanese. The buffet meals always had at least one Western-style entrée and one Indian, Thai, or Japanese entrée, as well as the Middle Eastern dishes (plus the salads, the sandwich fixings, and the deserts from around the world…I’m amazed I didn’t gain fifty pounds).
The Children’s Reading Festival was similarly international. OK, about 80-90% of the book dealers were Arabic publishers, but many had books in English (I picked up one on local history), and there were several who clearly act as distributors for American, British, or Japanese publishers (possibly others as well; I didn’t manage to examine all the booths as thoroughly as I’d have liked). The art display included children’s book illustrators from Mexico, Sweden, Canada, Germany, and Japan, as well as Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Egypt (which I’d expected).
Monday I was part of a panel on “Great Stories Around the World” with a British writer, a writer and scholar from one of the U.A.E.’s universities, and a well-known Arabic children’s writer. The panel was both the same and different from those I’ve been on before. The similarity was most noticeable in the way nothing anyone said had much to do with the supposed topic. The panel followed the academic model, where each panelist gives a five or ten-minute presentation, rather than the SF-convention model, where the moderator asks questions and everyone answers them. As is fairly common with such panels, the university scholar’s presentation ran at least twice as long as any of the writers’ speeches; what was much less common was that it was thoroughly fascinating, and the gentleman’s passion for his subject (designing books to appeal to as many senses as possible, so as to involve children more fully in reading, especially kids who have trouble with the traditional ways they’re taught to read) came across even in translation.
I had a little difficulty with the translation earphones, which I hadn’t used before. (I found it extremely distracting and disorienting to be listening to someone speaking in Arabic while I was trying to think of what to say next.) I finally took the headphones off when anyone was speaking in English, and put them back on when someone was talking in Arabic and I needed the translation. I found out later that there was an on/off switch I could have used, which would have been much less intrusive.
I did one thing right, and that was to remember to speak slowly enough for the translator to keep up. It was a bit tricky, as I tend to talk faster and faster when I’m nervous. I was glad I’d been warned about that in advance; one of the other presenters went so quickly that the translator kept getting lost, and I missed about 25% of what he said.
The school visit I did later in the week was much like any school visit. I’d worried about needing a translator for that, too, but evidently many of the schools teach English by immersion, and I was sent to one of those. The students were very bright and eager and asked lots of good questions, and I was able to present their library with some of those books I’d nearly forgotten to bring.
The rest of the trip, I split between napping (I never did adjust to the time change), doing touristy stuff, and hanging around the Festival. I signed an enormous amount of stock for the dealer who had copies of my books, sat in on a couple of other panels, watched some of the demos and presentations (the storyteller sounded amazing, even if I couldn’t understand a thing he said, and he must have been good because the kids in the audience were absolutely enthralled).
The other foreign authors who, like me, had been invited to present at the festival were from all over – Sweden, Germany, England, Wales, Egypt, Jordan … and those were just the ones who were there at the same time I was. It was both fun and frustrating to meet them, as we were all on different schedules, so half the people I met Monday were leaving Tuesday morning, and new writers arrived every day. After a while, I lost track of who was coming and who was going.
And then, just when I was finally starting to adjust to the time change, I had to get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the flight home. If I ever go again, I want to stay longer (and start adjusting to the time change in advance, so it’s not so much of a shock).