Never before, not even during the performance of the famed Eifman Ballet at the National Theatre, had I seen the car park of Bahrain National Museum brimming the way it did last Thursday, the opening day of Bahrain International Book Fair.
The crowd of buyers was a fitting reply to the mocking tombstone erected by a Lebanese publisher, at the 1999 International Book Fair in Beirut, proclaiming, “The Arab reader, until proven otherwise.”
All roads, including the one that caters to the National Theatre, led to the fair. The glittering skyscrapers of Manama provided the perfect backdrop to the setting, as one stepped on the wooden bridge leading to the two sprawling tents that housed the fair across the lagoon.
The difficulty posed by an all-Arabic directory to the book fair was more than made up by the friendly staff at the information desk. “You’ll find booksellers from the UAE in Zone C and Zone J. Those from Oman are in Zone D,” the charming girl said aloud as she wrote the details for me on a piece of paper. “And we’ll give you this bag,” she said with a smile, pulling out a cute, cotton shopping bag from underneath the counter and keeping the directory inside it.
It was clearly evident that the Gulf is the most prolific market for books in the Arab world. Endless rows of pre-assembled stalls, selling books from all over the Middle East, met our eyes as soon as we entered the sales area.
Was I dismayed by the sight of very few English book-stalls? Perhaps I was, but it was only natural that majority of the books in the Arab world would be in Arabic.
I was overwhelmed by the sight of book lovers weaving in and out of the alleys lining the stalls.
It will be with some nostalgia that I will recall this book fair in future, for being there both as a buyer and an author. Land of Two Seas, my historic novel based on Bahrain and launched in the island last month, had found a place at the fair in Jashanmal’s stall! The book had been well received by the island’s residents and I hoped it would succeed in giving pleasure to the readers for some time to come.
There were books on medicine and engineering, architecture and interior decoration, children’s education and of course the ubiquitous fiction.
I was content in buying a collection of concise books on the lives of mediaeval Arab scholars, from Al Khwarizmi to Ibn Al Haytham.
Bahrain International Book Fair has the potential to scale far greater heights. Getting international publishers and more booksellers in the English language, side by side holding lectures by notable writers, in the model of literary festivals, could go a long way in enhancing its image.
Chandan Sen Gupta