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Spread joy of reading Sharjah way
Published on: Sunday, May 21, 2023
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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A book-reading session
FIRST time to set foot in the Middle East to cover The Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival 2023 in the United Arab Emirates, proved to be an entertaining and positive experience.    

Nowhere else have I seen such a glut of diverse 1,658 workshops and educational activities and a convergence of 68 distinguished guests for 21 countries cover 12 days designed to foster the love and spread the joy of reading & books, attract and hone their interest.

Walt Disney and ‘edutainment’

Organisers call it “immersive edutainment” – entertaining education for the participating 122,000 participating kids, youths, parents, artists, writers, journalists and visitors, to maximise the positive impacts. The term “edutainment” was first used in 1954 by animation great Walt Disney, which is intended to teach but has incidental entertainment value.         

The whole idea is to spread the joy of reading among a generation of kids who will grow up well read, with good minds, sound thinking to maximise a positive impact.



Well read Sheikh Dr Sultan Mohammad Al Qasini – Ruler of Sharjah – at the opening of the festival on May 3. 



Khoula Al Mujaini: General Co-ordinator of Sharjah Children Reading Festival 2023. 



A narrator encourages children on the joys of reading. 



 A little girl finds joy and affection in embracing a mascot (left). Edutainment: Entertaining stunt  from a tall order man on tilt strutting  away to the tunes of a flute player.

“This is not a book fair, it is mainly a celebration, we try to reach the kids through whatever they like, or whatever they are entertained and love at the moment and link it top reading,” Khoula Al Mujaini, General Co-ordinator of the Sharjah Children’s Reading 2023 Festival, told Daily Express.   

The mind-boggling diversity of activities were designed to cater to individual interest to boost participation.

“This is why you can see lots of activities because we cater for different interest, every child doesn’t have the same interest as the other child, so it is important to have a diverse program that caters for everyone.  

“The purpose is to allow children to freely explore their creative talents and apply them. We believe in learning by doing, we provide that through the activities,” Khoula said.  

Enjoyable experience for Daily Express

Despite feeling like a scattered-brain amidst the sea of workshops, educational activities honing a diversity of technical, creative skills, discussion session, sprawling book stalls from all over the UAE, Middle East, India etc, I felt entertained throughput, by regular mobile entertainment troupes strolling in – mascots, highly interactive stilt shows, acrobats, sound of music from instrumental workshops on the harmonica, flute, violin, saxophone, guitar, plus three to four concerts from a top grade Florence Pop Orchestra from Italy, watched top gun Egyptian animator, Meena Ibrahim screened his super hero character Spider man , and I happened to bump into a roaring jaw-dropping performance by the famous Masaka Kids Africana from Uganda who mesmerised  the packed hall of UAE audience! 

For a first timer to the Middle East, the desert visit felt like a bursting into a dead zone on Earth – wow, it’s a positively stunning.  

The fun and entertainment part sets the positive mood.  

The serious part – ‘Train your Brain’ 

Now the serious part

“Train your Brain”, the slogan of the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival 2030, is perhaps the most valuable take-home word power packed with potential consequential gains for all who attended for widespread application long term, for a better future.

Think – the brain is at the core of everything one does, and sore sure at the core of what a nation collectively think.

So I asked Khoula if she believed the brain could be trained to do anything, she said: “Yes, we do believe that.” 

So, if this slogan sparks widespread efforts to improve, to make things better, as a result of its promotion, who knows what a progressive and prosperous society Sharjah may become in the decades ahead. 

Embrace a new activity 

Harvard-affiliated Institute for Ageing Researcher, Dr John Morris, said: “Embracing a new activity that also forces you to think and learn and requires ongoing practice can be one of the best ways to keep the brain healthy.” 

Mentally challenging activities, the more of them, plus desire to improve, are brain boosting. 

Interestingly, Morris brain training activities include arts, learning an instrument, writing, expressive work etc, exactly what I saw done at the SCRF 2023.

Pick a new activity, one that requires specific skill, learn its basics and then apply consistent practice to improve, that’s the advice. 

Raise a positive kid

So Spanish reporter who jointly interviewed Khoula with me, asked: “This festival has a lot of activities in both humanities and science, is it important to grow in both and why?”     

Khoula answered: “Yes, it is important of course, because we want to raise an educated kid who will participate in a positive way in society in the future. 

“For that, combining these two components in the workshops or in the activities that we are providing here at Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival 2030 is going to build that kid who will have a positive attitude, a positive contribution in the society.”

The Spaniard said she also saw many families.

“We don’t only educate the kid, it is important to educate the families on subjects that are affecting the children currently. So yes it is s family oriented event, focussed on all aspects of the children’s life – the educational and entertainment sides.” 

The SCRF may well be a “Voice of World Children”, given the convergence of hundreds of guests from 66 countries. 

 

Tell the world– shape minds           

Ahmad bin Rakkad Al Emeri, Chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority, organisers of the Festival, had already said so earlier on in March: “We wanted to tell the word that minds being shaped among us today are the first guarantee for all our aspirations and hopes.”     

“Our first goal and project is to provide children, adolescents and youths with the tools of sound thinking and open the doors of learning, skills acquisition, invention and innovation for them,” he examined.    

One & only Ministry of Tolerance & Co-existence in the world?

The whopping 512 guests from 66 countries, reflects something most astonishing and unexpected. United Arab Emirates has a Ministry of Tolerance and Co-existence.

In other words, the virtues of tolerance and co-existence are not given but must be cultivated.  Looks like the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival 2023 fit the bill.     

“Yes, as for cultural exchange, it is important to introduce kids to the other cultures, to the other beliefs, to the other backgrounds. I mean tolerance is an important topic or important concept, we focus more in raising children here, so giving children the chance to interact with other people from other different nationalities in one of the main mandates,” Khoula elaborated.    

Celebrating all – publishers, book sellers & authors 

A reading festival is a gathering focussing on celebrating all aspects of books and reading.

So, although the festival’s name suggests it’s children centric, in fact, it hosted from around the world 141 publishers – people who publish children’s literature. 

To enable SCRF’s commitment to foster a love for reading and learning among the youth, Sheikh Dr. Sultan allocated Emerites Dirham (AED) 2.5 million, to buy books from the publishers participating in the Festival.  Meanwhile, the Emirate also hosted the second edition of the Booksellers Conference – a convergence of 383 book distributors from 69 countries from around the world. In other words, everybody is treated as part of an ecosystem.  

The well read Ruler behind tall

“Of course these people are very important, without them, there are no books,” Khoula said.

But actually this is a story of Sheikh Dr Sultan’s determination to transform Sharjah into a literary destination.

Hitherto unknown to most of us, this is after all, the man, who as a child mortgaged the golden dagger his father gave him, to buy books, this writer chanced upon a very interesting anecdote in Google.

An extraordinary story, of course.

But as Khoula noted: “The publishing scene in Sharjah is strong and growing and for that we have the first publishing free zone in the whole world- Sharjah Publishing Free Zone. 

“It’s a Free Zone dedicated only for publishers for the publishing industry, it has all the components of the publishing ecosystem, you can find a printer, you can see publishing houses, you see even travel agencies. So it’s like everything, it’s like a city dedicated to publishing!” 

  

Minister of Education Uni, President, Professor

Sharjah is one of seven emirates that form the United Arab Emirates. A valid question is why it is so education–centric. 

It turned out that the academic background of Sheikh Dr Sultan Mohammed Al Qasimi, Ruler of Sharjah, was a former Minister of Education of the Emirates.

More than that, he was President of both the American University of Sharjah and University of Sharjah in 1997.

In 1998, he became Visiting Professor at Exeter University, his alma Mata where he studied Agricultural Engineering.

In 1999, he became Professor of Modern History of the Gulf at University of Sharjah and in 2008, he became Visiting Professor at the University of Cairo.  Are Sheikh Dr Sultan Mohammad Al Qasimi, and his wife, Sheikha Jawaher, the reason behind the Sahrjah Childrens’ Reading Festival?

“Exactly, His Highness is a reader and writer and because of his vision, we are trying to make sure this vision is continuous and we have been raised on the importance of reading, that’s why you see most of us are readers.”  

 

Teach kids through what they like  

“We try to teach kids through whatever they like or whatever they are entertained at this moment and link it to reading,” noted Khoula. But isn’t social media a threat as kids who are hooked on games or mobile phones and read less?

“I think it is both good and bad at the same time, depending on how they use it,” she said. Social media and artificial intelligence are key components in the educational process. For that we have to make sure all the activities we are providing here are mixed between education and entertainment,” Kholua added.



Workshop on AI: A girl assembling robot – learning by doing. 



Part of the 122,000 children and students targeted to spread the joy of reading. 

 “We do discuss the AI topics, we do discuss the technology topics, we have workshops on technology, computer, coding and because we believe that to be able to delivers an idea for kids, you need to send them that idea through something they like. So they are into social media, they are into technology and AI subjects, we can reach them through these. 

“As I said, it is good and bad but it depends on how they are using it. For that we have focussed more on the topics so that we can make sure they are aware of the right way to use these tools in the future,” she gave a discerning answer.

 

UAE empower women: Khoula    

On a personal note, both the Spanish journalist and myself asked Khoula her role as a woman General Coordinator of the SCRF 2023.  

“My role is to work on the activities, the programme and the marketing side of it and also the invitation that sends to kids, to the publishers, also the media part, inviting the media to come here to enjoy Sharjah and cover the events.”

“You can see here in the United Arab Emirates they do empower women very much, you can see women is all positions, you can find Ministers, ambassadors and all positions. 

“For me, I think it is very exciting and honouring position, I do enjoy working on such projects either for kids or other arenas, making a difference in the cultural industry. So I really feel proud to be in such a position,” Khoula concluded.    



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