At #PF16: The UAE's Bodour: 'Ahead of the Curve'

Raised in ‘a family that loves books and reading,’ the publisher Bodour Al Qasimi arrives at Berlin’s Publishers’ Forum next week as one of the most influential  and committed players on the industry’s world stage.

Bodour Al Qasimi
Bodour Al Qasimi

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘Understanding, Tolerance and Awareness’

One of the most widely anticipated sessions of this week’s Publisher’s Forum conference in Berlin (April 28 and 29) is the late-day commentary on Thursday from Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi of Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates.

Her “fireplace talk” with conference director Rüdiger Wischenbart is titled Publishing in the Arab World: Opportunities and Challenges, Encounters and Controversies. (Wischenbart tells us that #PF16 will post a video of the conversation after the event.) And the range implied in that title is no accident: Bodour, as she’s known, has seized one of the most daunting tasks in contemporary world publishing: “Arabic books are still among the least translated books in the world,” she says in an interview for Publishing Perspectives.

[pullquote cite=”Bodour Al Qasimi” type=”right”]”The promotion of reading, literacy and a passion for books is something that runs in Sharjah’s blood.”[/pullquote]

Both in written answers to questions for this interview and in an hour-long conversation in the UK during the London Book Fair, the two-fold nature of her challenge is clear.

  • Much more Arabic material needs to reach the international market in translation, and
  • The publishing traditions of the Arab world are encountering rigorous new demands of quality and execution.

Here’s an irony: As a member of the International Publishers Association (IPA) Executive Committee, and the founding patron of the Emirates Publishers Association, Bodour might be thought to have the steepest challenge, resolutely struggling to engage and coordinate the valuable but disparate creative idioms that power her world.

But think again. When she spoke in London on April 10 at the IPA’s 31st Congress, Bodour proved to be among the most forward-leaning presenters of the day. She challenged the IPA to look well beyond the world of business to the part of the equation that so many in the business still aren’t addressing: the consumer. Bodour, it turns out, is on a mission to define not only the future-book but the future-reader, as well. And she called on the IPA to join her, saying to the assembly in London:

“If we’ve learned any lessons since the start of this revolution, it is that we have to be ahead of the curve, we have to be a step ahead, it’s a must and not a luxury. What kind of readers are we going to have in 2030 or 2040? I’d like to know that.

“I’d like to suggest that we commission a report on what the future trends of reading are. How will we consume books? Once we have that data, we can convene and create the best strategy for our industry, for what’s coming ahead.”

Before leaving London, Bodour had also demonstrated her entrepreneurial savvy: She and London’s Quarto Group chief Marcus Leaver announced the formation of “Kalimat Quarto,” a new partnership imprint that in 2017 will begin to distribute jointly produced titles in the Middle East and North Africa.

An image from Bodour's third imprint. Rewayat.
An image from Bodour’s third imprint, Rewayat.

And to spend time with Bodour is to understand that a great deal of the progress she’s making is enabled by the warmth of her personality. This is a business person who articulates her vision with cordial, matter-of-fact logic. She speaks without hyperbole and has an essential grasp of what defines the needs of the artists she works with in her own publishing house and elsewhere.

For example, in an era in which even our independent authors are continually urged to find and engage the best editing support they can for their work, the tradition in Arabic literature is for “the author to do all the editing,” Bodour says.

“And this is where the problem comes. There’s one agent working in the Arab world, the RAYA Agency’s Yasmina Jraissati based in Paris. And she says that as an agent, one of the problems she finds is that the work comes fresh off the author’s laptop. That causes a lot of problems when you’re selling rights.”

And yet this has been the tradition for so long, Bodour says, that many readers in the Arab world simply accept it, reading books not only with the inevitable typos but also without the benefit of developmental or structural editing, considered fundamental to literary success in the West, of course.

[pullquote cite=”Bodour Al Qasimi” type=”right”]”We have to be a step ahead, it’s a must and not a luxury. What kind of readers are we going to have in 2030 or 2040?”[/pullquote]

At her own publishing house, Kalimat, Bodour employs four editors who must constantly try to explain to authors and other publishers that the work must be edited. For that reason, agents — a largely unknown player in Arabic publishing —would be a huge boon to her growing industry, Bodour says, because, like Jraissati in Paris, they’d guide and require the kind of proper preparation of text that prize programs in the Arabic world are calling for, as well.

This is the sort of candor that Bodour brings to her exchanges. She seems unafraid of facing what’s needed, undaunted in looking for how to address those needs.

Here’s a series of questions in which some of the key elements of her singular understanding of her own world and its deepening interactions with the rest of publishing come across readily.

Publishing Perspectives: Having founded the Kalimat Group, you started by creating the Arabic world’s first dedicated children’s imprint (Kalimat, established in 2007), followed by a digital-educational imprint (Horouf, 2013), and then a third imprint that includes work for both adolescents and adults (Rewayat, 2015). Kalimat alone, we’re told, has 18 team members and more than 175 titles by 34 authors working with 63 illustrators. Clearly you’re deeply invested in each stage of development. Is this particular direction — children’s to adult — significant in itself?

An illustration by Jimena Tello from 'Between Here and There' ('Bayna Houna wa Hounak') by Abir Ballan. From the Kalimat catalog.
An illustration by Jimena Tello from ‘Between Here and There’ (‘Bayna Houna wa Hounak’) by Abir Ballan. From the Kalimat catalog.

Bodour: The transition from children’s literature into genres for older readers was something that was a natural and organic progression for Kalimat Group. I wouldn’t say that our move from the children’s canon into that of young adults and adults was a case of our “growing up,” but I would say that it came about as a result of our growing confidence – both in our stature and our ability to produce titles of the highest standard.

Our starting base was one of expertise in children’s literature and once we had established ourselves as a leading publisher in that canon, we developed the confidence to expand into new directions. There was certainly a degree of altruism behind the move as it was in part influenced by a desire to tackle the high levels of adult illiteracy in the Arab world.

A 2009 report by ALECSO, the Arab League’s Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation, revealed an overall illiteracy rate of 35.6 percent in the Arab world compared with a global rate of 18 percent.

Recent studies have also indicated that the average Arab citizen reads approximately just four pages per year.

We wanted to support the literacy initiatives from the UAE government that encourage adult citizens to read by producing titles that would celebrate Arab culture and give readers a sense of national identity.

Sharjah is the home to the Sharjah International Book Fair (SIBF), which The Bookseller named as one of the top four books fairs globally. SIBF encourages reading by making quality books accessible to everyone at affordable prices. Through Kalimat, Horouf and Rewayat, Kalimat Group aims to be a major part in these initiatives by reaching out to all segments of society and instilling in UAE citizens a passion for reading.

Publishing Perspectives: The Horouf work, in particular, demonstrates your leadership in educational publishing not just in the region but also in the crucial digital arena. (Note that at Wischenbart’s Publishers’ Forum, an important keynote address will be given by Cengage Learning’s Michael E. Hansen.) Was your company able to embrace digital elements of publishing more quickly than most?

Kalimat GroupBodour: Kalimat Group was founded on the principle that it would be forward-looking with its offerings to enhance the reading environment in the UAE.

I’d say that it certainly helped that we established the organization at a time when the digital revolution was reaching its peak, and the prevailing zeitgeist of this period was imbuing us with a spirit of digital innovation and optimism. We were also fully aware that we needed to innovate to survive, with the publishing landscape obviously starting to change rapidly.

Our aim is to always stay ahead of the curve.

Our first foray into the digital sphere came as an educational initiative in the form of an integrated Arabic language system that utilizes smart technology to enhance children’s learning in Arabic. Developed by Horouf Educational Publishing, a subsidiary of Kalimat Group, this first-of-its-kind initiative aims to support learning in Arabic by leveraging the latest technologies in combination with purposely designed contemporary educational syllabuses.

The system provides stimulating educational programs that have been designed to promote analytic thinking to enable students to access the required information and use it effectively – a vital skill in the information age. It’s been a huge success so far and we’re looking to extend the initiative to senior schools and other educational establishments in the emirate.

Publishing Perspectives: Have you found the juxtapositions of more traditional and digital publishing jarring in your market in the UAE?

From materials announcing the Kalimat release of 'Baba Zayed,' a Virtual Reality reading experience.
From materials announcing the Kalimat release of ‘Baba Zayed,’ a Virtual Reality reading experience.

Bodour: Although the country has advanced ICT infrastructure and high Internet and mobile penetration, digital publishing is not capitalizing on this landscape nearly enough. Digital content or ebooks share only 1 percent of the Arabic book readership. Kalimat Group has printed more than 100 titles in the last few years, with almost all of them having digital versions. But only one copy in every 100 sold is a digital version. I don’t believe we’re experiencing any jarring between the two formats, it’s just that the demand isn’t there at the moment. We anticipate that this will change.

The integrated Arabic language educational system that employs smart technologies to enhance children’s learning in Arabic is now a major tool in Sharjah’s classrooms. As more and more pupils become comfortable with it and proficient in its use, we anticipate that they will be drawn to digital titles for their leisure reading. We hope this will then see them bringing the format with them into adulthood.

With the aim of both anticipating and stimulating this demand, the Sharjah Book Authority, in association with Kalimat Group, has launched Baba Zayed [based on the UAE’s founder, Sheikh Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan], the world’s first Virtual Reality book. Available in Arabic and English, Baba Zayed works by encouraging children to engage with the events depicted in it and to be influenced by its characters directly by wearing of VR glasses. Its 360-degree interaction aims to recapture youngsters’ joy for books through the adoption of a new, exciting format.

There’s more: Read the full story at Publishing Perspectives

By Porter Ander­son

Originally published at

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