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The power of culture to bring light to the world was a theme of the speech by His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan bin Muhammad al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah and Member of the Supreme Council, when he opened the 38th Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF).

“Forty years ago Sharjah was not as you see it now and no one thought we could build up our cultural achievements in the way we have,” he told guests who included Ludovic Poulle, the French Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates.  “We wanted to have a stable society and a sustainable economy and we could not have achieved this without books and science.”

He then touched on a sensitive area – freedom of expression and freedom to publish.  “People say that there is a lack of freedom to publish in the region.  Culture requires space in which to grow.  If you put a plant in a small space it may die.  We gave culture a new space here, but we didn’t want it to be exploited to attack society.  We put responsibility in individuals’ hands.  Freedom comes with responsibility.”

The glitzy opening ceremony included another sophisticated light show, something that has become a tradition at these events.  It also included the giving of the SIBF awards which saw the celebrated Lebanese academic Dr Yumna Al Eid named Cultural Personality of the Year.  Al Eid, who has a PhD in Arabic literature from the Sorbonne and has worked as a lecturer in Tunisian, Yemeni ad French universities, was selected in recognition of her 40-year literary career that has seen her publish a number of books on literary criticism and literary theory.

Among other awards presented were Best International Non-Fiction to The Fearless Organisation by Amy Edmondson (Wiley); Best International Fiction to The Son of the House by the Nigerian writer Cheluchi Onyemelukwe-Onuobia (Penguin Random House South Africa); and Best Foreign Publisher to Austria’s Adeva Graz.

The 11th edition of the Etisalat Children’s Book Awards were also presented at the opening ceremony and included the 300,000 UAE Dhm Children’s Book of the Year which was won by Anas Abu Rahma for A Story About S&L, published by Al Dar Al Ahia in Jordan.

This year’s fair, which runs until 9 November, is playing host to more than 60 international authors and cultural personalities, including the bestselling US crime writer Kathy Reichs, the Nobel Prize-winning Turkish author Ohan Pamuk and the US talk show host and comedian Steve Harvey.  Mexico is guest of honour and the opening ceremony also saw Juan Luis Arzoz Arbide, president of CANIEM, the Mexican publishers association, thank the UAE “for its promotion of culture”.

Concluding his own speech, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan said: “People ask where is Sharjah going now?  I will tell you.  We will continue our involvement with culture and I ask all our writers and men of letters to unite in our efforts to make Sharjah the centre of light of Arab nations.”