I was surprised and delighted to be asked to come as a guest to Sharjah International Book Fair, to run comics workshops as part of their children’s activities programme. It was an honour to be asked, although, at first I was a bit apprehensive, because I’d never been to anywhere in the Middle East before. Yes, it was a bit scary, but that seemed like a good reason to do it, rather than a reason not to do it! It was an opportunity to see a new culture, meet new people, and bring making comics into the lives of new children… so it was hard to resist!
The Sharjah International Book Fair was huge. Busy every day, especially during the evenings, it became just incredible on the Friday night, which is the weekend in UAE and lots of people chose to spend their time at the book fair. Huge crowds, loads and loads of kids and parents, and lots of stuff going on, including Chinese acrobats in the main thoroughfare of the Expo Centre. According to the figures there were over 2.3 million attendees over the 11 days of the event.
I heard that Eric Van Lustbader was there, although I didn’t see him, (did I mention it was huge?) but I did get to meet and hang out with a lot of lovely authors, illustrators and artists, including YA author Cassandra Clare, and this gang of reprobates who were also running activities: Paul Stickland, Timothy Young, Pam Paulsrud and Cori O’Connell.
I did four different workshops, about various aspects of comics and manga. Drawing cartoon faces, making manga characters, creating superheroes, and writing comic strips. The workshops were short, but we managed to pack stuff in. The children spoke a variety of different languages, most spoke good or very good English, some as their first language, many not, and so I had a translator, the marvellous Fatin, who made sure that everyone knew what was happening and what to do (although there was some confusion over whether manga was a tasty fruit, or something else… ) That meant I had to be adaptable, and cut down the complexity of the tasks sometimes. There was a real diversity in the children that came to my workshop, they were from all different backgrounds, different countries and different types of school. Some needed a bit of encouragement to get creative, but once they did… some amazing work was produced, from the girl who wrote a story about an evil kitten trying to take out a patent on a scientist’s invention, to the boy who made his best friend into a superhero footballer! The children enjoyed the copies of The Phoenix I brought with me too.
With a workshop in the morning, and one in the evening – there’s a kind of siesta culture in the UAE where things slow down in the afternoon, then pick up once the sun’s heat turns down a few notches – we had our afternoons free, and the midday sun didn’t stop us from using the afternoons to wander around and see the sights, cue the Noel Coward song. Sharjah is a beautiful place with many contrasts. We wandered around the souks, and by the docks old working dhows were delivering fish, while across the river huge modern yachts sat in front of fancy official-looking buildings. The historic area has some lovely new old buildings (they are rebuilding everything but in a traditional style with traditional materials) and fantastic Art Spaces run by the Sharjah Art Foundation, one of which was holding a Yayoi Kusama exhibition. There was a room that started out white, where visitors could add their own dots.
Back at the Book Fair, I found in my show guide that there was a panel about Comics, so of course, I went along. While it was all in Arabic (which I wasn’t expecting as all of the show’s material is dual language), it was still worth attending – and I recorded it on my phone to see if someone could translate for me later. I managed to meet a few people involved in comics in the UAE including the two speakers Marwa Al Aqroubi, president of the UAEBBY organisation which champions books and reading for young people and have recently worked with new young authors to create a range of UAE home-grown graphic novels; and Ali AlShaali, CEO of Hudhud Publishing who publish some excellent comic books for young people. The comics scene in the UAE is mainly dominated by US and Japanese comics and manga (as it is most places), but they are starting to build an industry to appeal to the many, many comics readers with local home-grown titles. It’s a pretty exciting time for comics in the UAE right now, as the industry seems to be just putting out its first leaves. Hopefully it will grow and grow.
The Book Fair people took very good care of us guests, with tiny cakes available at our whim in the Authors Lounge and posh cars to take us back and forth from the Expo Centre to the hotel. I felt like some kind of imposter at times because I was being treated so nicely. All in all, it was an enlightening and fascinating experience! Maybe one day I’ll be back…