Unlike the more industrial, technological savvy, “open city” Dubai; Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirate, is a little more traditional, cultural, and pretty Islamic. While Dubai boasts of engineering marvels like the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, in Sharjah, there are museums and mosques everywhere. And the laws are stricter. While you may act like an American in Dubai, and wear shorts; in Sharjah, the policy is no alcohol, no porn, and shorts are frowned upon.
Enter Peter Solis Nery, Western Visayas’s premier agent provocateur (of course, they don’t know that), and, let me put this in all caps… THE FIRST FILIPINO WRITER INVITED BY THE SHARJAH INTERNATIONAL BOOK FAIR AS CULTURAL GUEST. Yes, after 34 years of operation, Sharjah Book Fair, the fourth largest in the world, finally thought of inviting Filipino writers. At last! And guess who they chose to invite!
Why Peter Solis Nery? And why not? It still baffles me how I got discovered, better yet, invited to the Arab book fair. After I talked to the organizers, this is what I learned: they Googled the 10 most famous writers in the Philippines. They got Jose Rizal, dead; Carlos P. Romulo, dead; the dead presidents (as authors, really?). Then, there’s Peter Solis Nery, who only ranked 12th in one survey, and 34th in another. But Peter Solis Nery is alive, and well, lively! They thought my bio was exciting, thanks to Wikipedia. They contacted me through Amazon.com, and viola, I got invited.
Sharjah? Why not Sharjah? I grabbed the opportunity because I needed some publicity. Kidding! But half-seriously, really! I am doing all these wonderful literature for the Philippines, even when I have a wonderful life in the US, and only the Palanca Awards seems to notice. I don’t think Iloilo even recognizes my genius, even if I write for an Ilonggo newspaper!
To be fair, I do get attention in Iloilo. But not enough to cover my great contribution to Hiligaynon and Philippine literature. I don’t think that Ilonggos will notice me if I’m not taking my clothes off. And I do, and I did. Remember my nude protest stunt in the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo Resign Movement in 2005? And what about my HIV testing advocacy this year? Thank God I still have a sexy body at 46!
Anyway, at Sharjah, I wowed them and showed them what Filipinos got, what Ilonggos got, what Peter Solis Nery got. I ended up with only four main events at the eleven-day book fair. (Not bad for a Filipino first timer, and not bad exchange for the red carpet welcome.) I only attended six days of the whole book fair calendar, five if you don’t count the desert safari day that they organized for my entertainment. But boy, how I dazzled them!
At the Poetry Reading, I was with two PhD holders, and the only English-writing poets of Nepal and Burma. Well, I was Peter Solis Nery, Filipino, and so I went with my purple brocaded suit that wowed guests at the Palanca Awards last September. Everybody said I was a stunner, and stunned I did them by also reading my poems with mucho gusto. How can I do otherwise? Several Filipino expats went to the fair only to witness my event. And so it happened that as far as the organizers can see, I am a much “revered” author in the Philippines with “legions of fans” who dare brave the Sharjah traffic just to hear me read my poems. After the event, the press flocked to me and whispered, “You are a breath of fresh air in this rather very traditionally Islamic book fair.”
At my Panel Discussion, I wore a Vietnamese/Indian-inspired blue pina dress with handpainted floral design. Of course, it’s Miss Philippines gown material! And I knew I just had to rock it. The Qatari and Emirati TV and screen writers wore their traditional clothes, the Bangladeshi novelist wore a dress shirt, and Peter Solis Nery wore, well, Peter Solis Nery celebrity up his sleeves. And that’s how I got priority attention in the news.
At my School Visit, I wore my Spiderman costume to engage the girls at Umomara Secondary School. They say that Arabic teenage girls are shy to ask questions, no problem. I told them, I don’t want intelligent questions. I only want stupid and silly questions like, “Why do you dress up like Spiderman?” And that gets them going, so that in the end, I had to answer questions about what it means to “write from the heart.”
At my Book Signing event, not very many had copies of my books. Understandable. Most people lined up to the Arabic authors. But I got my loyal Ilonggo and Dumangasanon fans, so I was pretty happy. It wasn’t like I didn’t score. I sold books! As far as the organizers are concerned, I commanded a Filipino audience. They were also amused, as I was, that people of other nationalities would go and have selfies taken with me. They may not read English, but they know a celebrity writer when they see one!
This I say again: I am not the best Filipino writer of this generation. I may not even be the most famous. But hey, God is good to me, and I am where I want to be. Most importantly, I can rock it! Even in the Middle East!