In the last few decades, there has been a scarcity of well-written Arabic works of literature, especially books for children. The result of this is that children have turned to TV and computer games. Primarily due to parental neglect, coupled with the Arab tendency to emphasize the oral rather than written tradition, generations of children have grown into adulthood without developing the reading habit.
The very first verse of the Quran revealed to Prophet Mohammad (peace be upon him) was Iqra (“Read”). That the Arabs have more or less lost the reading habit means that they have not only been cut off from the world of literature but also new fields of knowledge in which they lag behind.
Attempts are now being made to close that gap through two major publishing programs launched separately by the Dubai and Abu Dhabi governments where hundreds of books will be translated into Arabic and Arab writers will be nurtured. There is also a growing awareness that in order for such initiatives to be successful, reading has to be inculcated from childhood. A walk through the recently held Sharjah International Book Fair, the biggest such event in the Gulf region, shows that Arab publishing houses and parents have started to reach the conclusion that encouraging reading at an early age is vital. At that fair, a large section was exclusively set aside for Arabic children’s books.
Publishing houses interviewed by Arab News reported that they made excellent sales.
Yousuf Aydabi, the fair’s general coordinator, said that the children’s section this year was the biggest in the fair’s history. He revealed that the fair had the option to choose only the best children’s publishers to participate in this year’s session.
“We had 190 applicants for the fair of which we chose 90,” said Aydabi. “The mere fact that we received so many applications is a testament to how much children’s literature has grown in the Arab world over the past few years compared to the previous decade when less than a half of such houses existed.”
Not only has the number of children’s publishers increased, according to Aydabi, but also has the variety and quality of the books. “Before they only published school textbooks or translated educational books and encyclopedias from other languages into Arabic,” he added. “It was difficult to find storybooks and the few available were boring and did not inspire children to read them.”
Children’s literature has been suffering from the same malaise affecting adult books: The lack of talented writers, copyright issues and the indifference of the cultural ministries in the Arab World.
“The governments should do more to encourage book publishing in the Arab world. They should set up more children’s libraries, make the printing process cheaper for the publishers by lowering the taxes imposed on them amongst many other steps,” said Aydabi.
Even though the Arab governments have neglected their duty toward supporting children’s literature, some publishers have taken it upon themselves to change the status quo. The books of these publishers have helped revive an industry that was on the verge of collapsing. Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al-Qassimi is one of these trailblazing publishers. She decided to set up a publishing house, Kalimat, after failing to find good Arabic books for her first daughter. “The quality and variety of English books was impressive, but sadly I was shocked to see how mediocre the Arabic books were,” she said. “Only in Lebanon could I find some good books and even they had a limited variety.”
Launched in 1997, Kalimat (“Words” in Arabic) has already produced 25 titles. The books are written and illustrated by award-winning Arabic authors and illustrators for children up to 12. With topics ranging from ancient Arabic fables to dilemmas faced by children in modern life, the books use language that is simple and relates to children. The fact that publishers are now reaching a level of sophistication is seen in some of the topics taken up by Kalimat.
Kamal Halawi from Dar Al-Hadaiq, a publishing house from Lebanon, revealed that respecting children’s intellect was one of the reasons for their success. Dar Al-Hadaiq is one of the oldest publishing houses to produce books specifically for children. According to Halawi, the house — founded 20 years ago — has been expanding at a faster rate than their counterparts, which publish adult fiction and adds new authors every year.
These new types of children’s books cost more, but Sheikha Budour defends the prices: “The cost of producing quality books is very high.” She argues that Arabs expect to pay less for titles in Arabic but do not mind paying more for English-language books.
Despite the positive changes Aydabi pointed out that there are still many problems affecting the children’s literary scene in the Arab world. “Nurturing talented writers, bringing down the costs of producing books, fighting piracy, creating proper distribution channels and developing databases on books are some of the steps the governments should take if we want children’s literature to flourish in the Arab world,” he said.
Regardless of all the challenges, Sheikha Budour says she is optimistic that there is a huge market for good literature in the Arab world and that the response to Kalimat’s books has been “overwhelming.” The fact that Kalimat sold all their books during the Sharjah Book Fair and other such events in the region proves that her enthusiasm deserves to be bookmarked for consideration.