Sheikha Bodour on Child Literacy in the UAE

Sheikha Bodour at the Sharjah International Book Fair


Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, the daughter of the ruler of Sharjah, is tired but happy. The 31st book fair has just opened in Sharjah, and the previous day has been a whirlwind of interviews, dinners, photo ops and public appearances. “Today I’m in my flat and I’m just going to sit all day,” she says with a laugh – still looking flawlessly fresh in a silky black abaya. “Yesterday was crazy. But nice crazy.”

We’re in a private room above the hubbub of the fair: downstairs, children in school uniforms are taking pictures of people in Mickey and Minnie Mouse costumes on their iPads and men and women are pushing shopping trolleys loaded with heavy books. Up here, there’s incense burning and cups of tea. The Sheikha is a calming presence, with a gentle voice, easy laugh and barely accented English.

It’s the culmination of a very successful year for the Sheikha, who studied anthropology at Cambridge and UCL before turning to publishing, inspired by a lack of local books to read her then-baby daughter. “I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I learnt a lot along the way.” Five years ago, she launched Kalimat, which publishes children’s books in Arabic, and since then her list has reached a hundred titles.

There’s more good news: the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), of which Sheikha Bodour is president, has finally been accepted into the International Publishers Association (IPA), after a rejection the previous year. She has launched a fund to promote reading among children affected by conflict and natural disasters and the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, which she oversees, has just had its best year yet. “For the first time, all the books that were submitted were really good. Really good,” she says.

Down at the fair, the Kalimat stand is full of beautiful hardback children’s books with lavish watercolour and pastel illustrations. One of the most popular is Maitha Al Khayat’s My Own Special Way (Tareeqati Al Khassa), which shows a scrappy Emirati girl experimenting with the style of her hijab. The copy at the fair is in Arabic, but the book’s world rights have been bought by Orion, the group that publishes Ian Rankin, Douglas Adams and Anthony Horowitz. Khayat’s latest book, When the Camel Craves Dumplings, will be launched at the fair this year.

“It needs a lot of nurturing and development,” Sheikha Bodour says of the Emirates’ publishing scene, “but we’re getting there.” A recent report commissioned by the EPA found that only a tiny fraction of books in stores in the UAE were published in the country, and although the Sheikha’s initiatives are helping, there are plenty of challenges to overcome.

She rattles through them: the UAE is a small, young country, and cultivating a book industry to rival the US’s or Germany’s “takes time; we need to be patient”. Then there are the high ISBN prices (which she is lobbying the National Media Council to lower), piracy, a lack of awareness about copyright issues and a lack of established distribution channels. “Maybe digital is the answer to that,” she says. “I had lots of ideas to do digital books a couple of years ago but I think the market’s not ready for it, so we need to wait and see.”

Kalimat has a few book apps that have been sold through the iTunes Store, but they didn’t reach many readers: the marketing was tricky. Now, with the advent of local e-book platforms such as Rufoof and Qordoba, things might be changing. “We have signed up with them,” Sheikha Bodour says of the digital companies, “and we will be getting our books out with them very soon. It’s very exciting.”

Another problem being addressed at the fair was flagged up in The National late last year. In December, Steve Donoghue wrote about the slog that most authors face trying to get noticed by publishers and “it got us thinking”, Sheikha Bodour says. “So we have created an event here at the book fair where first-time authors can come and talk to Emirati publishers, to network and ask questions.”

It’s clear from the passion with which Sheikha Bodour speaks that her initiatives aren’t mere PR exercises or vanity projects. She inherited a love of culture from her father, grew up surrounded by books and has passed on a love of reading to her daughter, now 9.

“She tells me now: ‘Mum, you should do books about this and you should publish this kind of thing.’ I take her advice all the time,” says the Sheikha.

The key for her is that reading should never be seen as a chore. “You see a lot of teachers and parents and libraries preaching that children have to learn something from books,” she says, “and then other people encourage reading for fun, and I think that side is taking over now. You see people enjoying comics and manga, different types of books that aren’t necessarily educational. I’m really happy to see that change.”

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