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A tale of two emirates

November 12, 2012

Sharjah is just about the last place on earth I would have associated with books, so I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the Gulf emirate has been holding an annual book fair for over 30 years. This year, the focus was on Pakistan, so a bunch of writers from our country were invited, including this one.

The event was held in the large Expo Centre, and publishers from over 50 countries had set up their stalls. Obviously, the Arab-speaking world was strongly represented, but Indian, Pakistani, Chinese and European publishers were present as well, making it a truly international event.

The Sharjah Book Fair enjoys the active support of its emir, Shaikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al-Qasimi, an enlightened ruler who has been a strong advocate of education and culture. In fact, he is deeply involved in running the American University of Sharjah, his pride and joy. I was invited to speak about my book, Fatal Faultlines, to students at this striking campus, and the facilities were certainly world class. In fact, it is widely considered the finest university in the Arab world.

I was proudly told by a senior faculty member that Al-Qasimi had personally designed much of the campus. I could well believe this as the buildings reminded me of a film set for Arabian Nights with vast domes and large expanses of tiles connecting the various departments. Cleaning and air- conditioning these huge spaces must tax the resources of even this rich emirate. The students I spoke to were extremely bright and articulate; clearly the university attracts the cream of young people from the region.

I was a bit taken aback to learn that the entire faculty was composed of expatriates, and all had some connection to the United States. The student body of over 5,000, too, reflects the demographic diversity of the population of the UAE. Only 15 years old, the university is already playing a big role in producing well-educated graduates.Although I was present for only four days of the fair’s two weeks, I was impressed by the large crowds milling through the Expo Centre. Last year, the event pulled in over 500,000 visitors, and I’m sure this year’s book fair will draw even more. I was asked to join a panel of local journalists for a discussion about the place of cultural reporting in journalism. I was puzzled by the theme, but then discovered that writers had a grouse with editors of the UAE press over the limited space and importance their articles on culture received. I made the point that for me, there was no dividing line between culture and politics: indeed, culture pervades every aspect of our lives.

For years, I had considered Sharjah to be a suburb of Dubai, but after spending a few days there, I realised that the two emirates differ in important ways. Dubai has seen an enormous investment in buildings and infrastructure in recent years. Wide, multi-lane highways and flyovers criss-cross the emirate, and a sleek, modernistic overhead train traverses much of its length. Tall skyscrapers – many of them halted in mid-construction during the recent slump – dominate the cityscape.

Traffic flows quickly in much of Dubai, in marked contrast to Sharjah where narrow roads cause acute congestions, especially in the afternoons when thousands are returning from work in Dubai. Apparently, rents are lower in Sharjah, so people commute daily between the two neighbouring emirates.

But the difference is more than physical: the two tiny states reflect the outlook of their respective ruling families. In Sharjah, traditional values still prevail, and the pace is much slower. Dubai is flashier and more outward looking. Perhaps the difference between the two is best captured by the fact that in Dubai, thirsty foreigners can easily get a drink while Sharjah is completely dry.

This caused considerable consternation among a few members of the Pakistani contingent. But thanks to the generous hospitality of a key local volunteer, evenings were not the sober affairs they might otherwise have been.

Interacting, even briefly, with a marvellously talented crop of young Pakistani writers was great fun. Present, too, were ace photographers Tapu Javeri and Arif Mahmood. Among the Pakistani writers at the book fair were Muhammed Hanif; Raza Rumi; Nadeem Aslam; Salman Ahmad of Janoon, and author of Rock and Roll Jihad; Musharraf Ali Farooqi; and HM Naqvi. Fehmida Riaz and Afzal Ahmed Syed were the two famous Pakistani poets at the book fair.

Pankaj Mishra, the prolific Indian writer, spoke to Raza Rumi about his new book The Ruins of Empire. Sadly, I had a Dawn deadline to meet, and missed the talk as the next day, I was going to the Abu Dhabi Art Fair, an umbrella for scores of private galleries from around the world. Many Arab artists were on display, and I was impressed by the range and quality of paintings on sale. The star of the Sharjah Book Fair for me was Arundhati Roy, the famous Indian novelist and essayist who has been crusading for the dispossessed and the voiceless for years. She has spent a lot of time with Kashmiris and the Naxalites, among others, in her passionate campaign for their rights. Reading from her book The God of Small Things, and speaking about the issues that move her, Ms Roy enthralled the large, standing-room only crowd.

Present in the audience was the Indian consul-general who made a bit of a fool of himself by his long-winded interventions and questions. I have no doubt he was doing so to figure prominently in the official report he would send to the Indian foreign office. To my surprise, Ms Roy refrained from the crushing replies she is capable of, and which he so richly deserved.

Her focus has long been the devastating impact of India’s rapid economic development on the most downtrodden sections of society. She underlined the huge disparities that continue to widen among the rich and the poor, and deplored the selfishness of the Indian elites. Sadly, much the same critique can be made of Pakistan.

Finally, a word of thanks to Elisabet Hohl and Farid Alvie for their organisational skills, kindness and endless patience.