In an era of Kindles and tablets, a love of reading is still evident in Oman. Alvin Thomas attends the Muscat International Book Fair and meets the people for whom a bound copy still speaks volumes.
It’s 10am on a balmy Saturday: the recent rains have given residents a much-needed drop in the temperature across parts of the capital, making it a perfect day to hit the beach or simply relax in the park to get rid of that weekday stress.
But this is no ordinary week, and today is no ordinary day. And it is not the beaches and parks that are crowded with people, but rather, the Oman Convention and Exhibition Centre – a place that is usually deserted at weekends.
And when we say crowded, we actually mean overcrowded because from where we are standing, we could never imagine the amount of people at this location – especially at this time of the day.
The number of people waiting to enter the halls is easily in the tens of thousands, and this time it’s not to witness a car show or a gaming expo, but a book fair. Don’t get us wrong: this is no generic book fair. This is the Muscat International Book Fair (MIBF), which is the biggest annual book fair in the country.
The Muscat International Book Fair, which is now in its 22nd year, has not only been a source for residents across the country but also a platform for numerous local authors to showcase their works, as well as an opportunity for them to reach a much wider international audience.
Azhaar Ahmed, the manager of the Cultural Club of Oman, says: “The book fair is an annual routine for me and the club and we always make sure to place a stall at their venues. We use this as an opportunity to present the books that have been published with us.
“All of our published books are by Omanis. And we can see an increase in the number of Omani authors who are currently active in our society. Today, we are here to launch books by new authors as well as reading discussions, and so forth,” she says.
In total, more than 750 publishing houses from 28 countries are attending the 11-day event, which began on February 22. A total of 450,000 titles are also on sale. But what’s more interesting is that numerous Omani authors have taken the opportunity to showcase their works directly through their stalls, or indirectly through publishers.
One young Omani, Abdul Karim, an aspiring short story writer, sats: “I have been waiting for this break. I have been writing poems and short stories since I was nine. All of them are in Arabic and have received a very good response from my family, teachers and friends.
“Of course, I don’t have the capabilities to set up a stall on my own so I am here only to showcase my book with my college’s club,” he says.
Abdul’s works includes six short stories about suburban life in Oman, and how a young boy copes with adapting to a faster pace of life when he has to move to the city for higher education.
“We have been taking part in the event for the past few years and we are happy with the response, especially from young people,” Rashid Suleiman, from the Ministry of Heritage and Culture, was recently quoted by local media as saying.
“We publish books on the history and culture of various wilayats of the Sultanate. This year, the books are on the dhows of Nizwa and Barka. Books are an integral part of our history and such books will help young people and tourists learn more about our country.”
Meanwhile, Fadil Hussain Abuaseem, the deputy director of libraries in the eastern zone at the Sharjah Book Authority, says: “We feel that the Muscat International Book Fair is giving local writers a lot of importance and a fair chance for them to compete with the international sellers.”
Fadil and his team are in Oman to show their support for the fair, as well as to promote their campaign of improving book culture across the GCC countries.
“What they [the book fair] do by having it on an annual basis is allow a ground for local writers to flourish. And once these writers build up their confidence here, they can come and showcase their books in other countries.
“What I know about Omani writers is that they hold their culture and tradition very close to their hearts. And that makes them different from many other writers. You and I can write about anything we want but nothing will appeal to a reader as much as something that the writer has experienced,” adds the deputy director, who is a writer and an avid reader of novels.
When we ask Fadil to comment on the growth of the Muscat International Book Fair, he says: “We have been attending the fair for the past 18 years and we can see a very sizeable growth in the way the book fair has been held.
“A lot more will be done and has to be done. The difference currently is that the book fair in Sharjah (which is one of the world’s largest book fairs) has authors from 200 nationalities and here it is only 28. So, a few more things have to be done. But, Muscat is growing so fast and I am sure in the coming years we will see a lot more participation.”
Meanwhile, 55-year-old Arif Mohammed al Zaabi, a visitor, and a self-proclaimed bookworm, only has positive things to say about the book fair.
“There’s a saying: ‘A book is like a garden carried in a pocket.’ To most people that won’t make sense but when my professor – Dr Mohammed –told me that proverb, I changed
“Growing up, I didn’t have a television or a PlayStation-contraption. All I had was the Holy book of Quran and second-copies of classics such as A Christmas Carol and Frankenstein. And that lay the path ahead for me,” says Arif, a resident of Barka.
“But, of course, time goes on and things change. Today, children learn to use smartphones before they even learn multiplication tables. That’s how advanced we are today, and that is the future of everything.
“When I was a little boy, however, I remember how grateful we were. When we had English books arrive in our school, we would all fight over them,” he reminisces. “But I can tell you that there are a lot of differences with the education system in the early days of the blessed Renaissance, and how it is today.
“A big portion of my schooling days were limited to Arabic books and novels. But after 1970, things have changed drastically,” he exclaims.
Arif is correct: it was indeed after the Renaissance in 1970 that the country’s educational system took shape.
The literacy programme began in the Sultanate during the academic years of 1973 and 1974. At the beginning of this programme, the duration of study was two semesters; at the end of which a student was awarded a certificate that granted freedom from illiteracy, which is equivalent to the level of success in the fourth grade (formal education).
The Sultanate’s national educational programme expanded rapidly during the 1970s and the 1980s, and Sultan Qaboos University was founded in 1986.
It was reported that in the academic years of 2006 and 2007, a total of 560,000 students attended 1,053 public schools in the country. Recent statistics (source: oman.om) show that the illiteracy rate among males stood at about 5.5 per cent and 12.9 per cent for females in 2013.
Rashad al Wahaiby, the advertising and promotions specialist at Sultan Qaboos University, who is present at the book fair, says: “We have been a part of the book fair since the beginning and we are here to promote everything we can about education and our services towards the same.
“All of our resources for knowledge are open to all the people of Oman. We have different information centres, which include a total of five libraries that are present in the SQU and across other colleges.
“Anyone who is interested in books can benefit from the resources. In the SQU we have around 53,000 titles and more than one million scientific papers in and around the SQU and from other international institutions. We also have a special group in the humanities research centre and Omani study centre that one can make use of if he or she is interested in doing some research on the country.
“You don’t have to be a student or a faculty member. All you have to do is drive down to our library. In the SQU, we have the cultural centre where we have the main library, which can hold up to 750,000 books. Right now, we have 211,000 books and we are upgrading rapidly,” Rashad adds.
When Rashad is asked to comment on the evolution of reading books to online sources and e-books and how SQU has adapted to the 21st century, he says: “From our understanding, we still have a lot of people coming to borrow physical books. But we also do provide digital versions although that is for scientific papers. Still, the demand we see is for printed books.
“For staff and students, it is just more handy than, say, an electronic book,” he adds, before pointing out that SQU’s library recorded more than 600,000 visitors, in 2016 – a record for the university.
With regards to the evolution of reading, we also ask Express Publishing, a UK-based publisher present at the book fair, to comment on the topic. George Lucas, a company spokesman, says: “We have both printed books and on-screen books. Most of our printed materials also have an application tagged along for easier reference.
“It is true that more children are interested in digital media, than say, print media. We are trying to advance along with technology, and kids just appreciate the gamification of education,” he says, before adding that “the actual habit of reading hasn’t gone down at all. But the habits have changed. Nowadays, most people don’t read from actual books but opt to do so from a digital medium”.
He adds: “Print media will not necessarily die because of this. Without it, you cannot learn how to physically write and read. So habits have changed but the core remains the same. It’s just human habit, and we have to move forward with time.”
Meanwhile, Azhaar Ahmed, the manager of the cultural club, says: “I think the interest for literature and reading is very good in Oman, and this is also the case if you look at things in a wider perspective. Oman is a big country, and even then, in less than 30 years, we have been able to achieve excellent literacy rates. Above all, many individuals have been inspired to take up research and writing.
“From this book fair, I can see a lot of people coming here not just to walk around but also to actually buy books. It is out of passion and desire for reading that makes them come here. Most of them, I know, were waiting for this book fair to commence.
“Omanis have a very strong link with books. Because culture is in our blood, documenting it for the future has always been important to us. It is a part of our history.
“Social media and online sources have definitely come up but I am telling you that there is still a strong desire for reading and obtaining physical books. Of course, I cannot predict how it will be in the future but if we maintain our habit then our country is looking at a very bright future.
Azhaar is a children’s book writer, who considers herself “optimistic about a strong literary future for Oman”.
She says: “Because I am a writer myself, I have to be optimistic. I conduct a lot of workshops for reading and writing regularly. From the number of children joining, I can tell you that things are going pretty steadily.”
1. Exposing Yourself to New Things
Through reading, you expose yourself to new things, new information, new ways of solving a problem, and new ways to achieve one thing.
Through reading, you begin to have a greater understanding on a topic that interests you. For example: how to build self-confidence, how to make plans better before taking action, how to memorise things better, and more. All of these self-improvements start from reading.
3. Improve Understanding
The more you read, the more you understand one thing: the A to Z of something.
4. Preparation to Action
In today’s world, getting reviews and feedback from other people can make a big impact on your next decision, and the pros and cons of each choice. Read about how to cook a meal, how to play chess, or which place is suitable for the family holiday. These can all help you become more prepared before you really get into it.
5. Gain Experience from Other People
When you are reading, you are actually gaining the knowledge and experience of someone. It can hasten your success towards a goal as you don’t need to repeat the same mistake while focusing on the right path in achieving one thing.
6. Tools of Communicating
Communication is the most important tool that can be transmitted through reading. As you communicate through reading, you understand more, and thus you can communicate better with people.
7. Connecting Your Brain
When reading, you’re in full silence because reading connects directly to your brain. In silence, you seek for more; in silence, your brain is clear and focuses. Thus, you learn and grow, and therefore you feel and see from the point of view of the author about everything in life. Hence you shape a better self.
8. Boost Imagination and Creativity
Reading exposes you to a world of imagination, showing you nothing is impossible in this world. By reading, you are exploring a different angle to see a thing you’ve known, on how different action leads to different results. Books are beyond imagination. It’s like a huge spider web, where you keep linking to more and more to things you knew, and things you just learn, structuring new solutions and answers.
1) Sit close together when sharing a book and encourage your child to hold the book themselves and/or turn the pages.
2) Don’t be afraid to use funny voices – it’s a great way to make your child giggle. And don’t be afraid to sing either. They won’t care whether or not you sing in tune or know the words!
3 When you talk to your child about what’s going on in a book, give them plenty of time to respond. Try to ask questions that don’t require just yes or no answers. For example, ask them what they think will happen next or ask them about how a character might be feeling.
4) Sharing books isn’t just about the words. Point to the pictures and relate them to something your child knows.
5) Using a puppet to act out a story can help your child to understand what’s going on and learn how to pretend- play. Why not pick a character from your book and use the puppet to show what they are doing?
6) And lastly – make it fun! It doesn’t matter how you read with a child as long as you both enjoy the time together.