We recently attended the Doha 18th International Book Fair, sponsored by the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage. This is an annual event and was held at the magnificent new Qatar International Exhibition Center in the West Bay area of Doha. The exhibition was extremely well attended. We had arrived at 6 pm presuming we were early, since most people here tend to go out later at night, but we were in for a shock. Although the center has a huge parking lot, it was completely full. Some had even parked in the surrounding open grounds. Needless to say, parking was a nightmare, as it usually is at popular events and most shopping centers. We eventually followed someone with shopping bags and took their spot.
It was a mammoth event, with over 100 stalls and vendors. Major publishing houses from all over the Middle East (namely Syria, Egypt, Jordan and UAE among them) displayed their wares, along with a few Western ones such as Penguin and Scholastic. The vast majority of books - I would estimate at least 80-90% - were in Arabic. Many were religious books. We found a stall that specialized in Islamic texts in English, from where we picked up several excellent books. We saw many exquisite Qurans of all sizes, some which were over two feet! Seeing I was missing out on such great books, it fortified my inspiration to learn Arabic; something on my to-do list while I am living here.
Choices available in the general English section though, were scant. I had gone there with the presumption I would be able to pick up some good reading material, but came back empty handed. I did, however, see the British influence in this country. Qatar was once (like much of the world) a British colony. It regained its independence in 1971. I saw books by Enid Blyton, Agatha Christie, Roald Dahl, and the ever popular Barbara Cartland. There were also the classic novelists; Thomas Hardy, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austin, Rudyard Kipling, and the bard himself, William Shakespeare, just to name a few.
There were several good stalls for very young children which had both games and educational material. Though most were in Arabic, at this age language is less of a barrier. We all agreed A had the best shopping spree. We bough several educational items for him in addition to a few delightful and traditional Arabic toys.
I was also pleased to see college aptitude test preparation books (TOEFL, SAT and a few GRE & GMAT’s) were both in great supply and demand. Qatar places a great deal of importance on education. Guided under the auspices of the Emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah, this is home to the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, which boasts branches of such prestigious US universities as the Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Carnegie Melon Schools of Computer Science and Business, Texas A&M University for Chemical, Electrical, Mechanical and Petroleum Engineering, Virginia Commonwealth University School of Arts, and soon to be added in 2008, Northwestern University Schools of Journalism and Communication. All universities offer four years Bachelors degrees, with the exception of Cornell, which offers a 6 year Doctor of Medicine degree.
Though there are plenty of book stores here, the majority are in Arabic. The only western outlets are Jarir Book Store and the newly opened Virgin Mega Store. Selections at both stores are limited and prices are exorbitant. There is a great demand here for good book stores. Though back home I preferred to go to independent book sellers, where I not only found the latest best sellers and other new books, I also found many rare items as well as some funky finds. But I can see how well the giant conglomerates like Barnes & Noble and Borders will do. I hope someone from the New Store Development department is reading this!