How books are booming in the Middle East

By Sylvia Smith BBC News

With Islamic State militants taking greater control of strategic towns in Syria and Iraq, the publishing heartland of the Middle East is being thrown into disarray.

These traditionally more literature-oriented countries have long suffered from a lack of coherent cross-border book distribution but that problem is now compounded by Isis disrupting the major arteries.

But while the sale of books may be under threat in the Arab heartland, a significant increase in book purchasing and literacy, and in particular female literacy, in the countries of the Gulf is more than compensating for this.

The sale of children’s books is on the rise and La Librairie des Colonnes, Morocco’s oldest bookshop, on Tangier’s main boulevard is contributing to this boom. The shop stocks more children’s books in French and Spanish than it does in Arabic since well-to-do families educate their offspring at international schools where they are taught in non-Arabic languages.

Moroccan writers of children’s literature find getting their work published in French easier than in Arabic. Throughout the Maghreb, Arab literature for children tends to have been translated from a foreign language. Although first and foremost a bookshop, La Librairie is also a publisher, printer and distributor – a multiskilled model that is widespread throughout the Arab world.

Bodour Al Qassimi founded the publishing house Kalimat eight years ago because she was dissatisfied with the quality of books available in Arabic for her own children. She now focuses Kalimat on creating top quality children’s literature in Arabic, such the illustrated Ramadan in the UAE, pictured here.

The publishing house presents traditional Arabic culture flavoured with contemporary experiences of modern day Arabic children in an original way. Estimates put the overall value of the book market in the United Arab Emirates at around $272m (┬ú180.5m), but no separate figures are yet available for sales of children’s books.

The market will further expand on account of the popularity of e-books. People in the United Arab Emirates are among the heaviest users of the internet and smartphones in the world. But Bodour Al Qassimi says that electronic publishing will be balanced by the physical enjoyment of books.

Mah and Me, the creation of Omani writer and illustrator Ebtihaj Al Harti tackles one of the most taboo subjects – death. It won an award at the Sharjah International Book Fair in Dubai for its sensitive portrayal of the death of a beloved grandmother and the difficulties facing parents who want to explain to their young son what has happened.

The tale may strike a chord with many of the region’s 300 million Arabic speakers, however it is likely that this book will be distributed more widely in Western countries and certainly more than in Oman because of the small number of bookshops in the country.

Distribution of books in the region is often beset with logistical problems because each country has different laws and regulations. Book fairs are used as places to buy books that are otherwise hard to come by. Online distribution is already increasing its share of the market with many publishers now adapting rights contracts to include digital rights automatically.

Joining Andy Warhol, Truman Capote and Stephen King, teenager Edil Hassan won the prestigious American Scholastic Arts and Writing award this year for her poems and short stories inspired by her family’s Somali roots.

In the country where her parents were born, book sales are extremely low on account of high illiteracy, war and a paucity of shops selling books. In her short story My Mother’s Stories in Me, Edil describes growing up in America distanced both by miles and culture from the homeland of her parents and grandparents.

“I hear the distance when my grandmother tells me stories of Moqdishu ” she writes. ” I know that I will never experience them myself, even more so because the places she speaks of have been bombed and reduced to rubble.”

While traditionally storytelling used to be an esteemed profession throughout the Arab world, it is going out of style with the greater availability of books and social media.

Even in Morocco’s Jma El Fna’a in Marrakesh, storytelling had all but died out until a nearby cafe started more formal storytelling sessions with young apprentices learning the skill from an old master. However, the stories are being handed down in English and French, not Arabic. The oral tradition, which continues in countries with low literacy rates, may be responsible to some extent for the prevalence of piracy in Arabic publishing. Sharing tales with others who cannot read remains part of Arab identity.

Beyond the oral tradition, a radically transformed fictional super-heroine has recently burst on to the comic scene. Ms. Marvel is now embodied in Kamala Khan the first teenage Muslim girl in a mainstream comic endowed with super powers.

Ms. Marvel is dark skinned with “shape-shifting” abilities but is not a feminist. Behind the superhero mask is a girl who resonates with Arab teenagers in the United States. The daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she is non-headscarf wearing and she will get her own movie in 2017.

Creator G Willow Wilson is a Muslim convert who delights in representing the difficulties of being a superhero as much as those confronting Islamic immigrant youngsters who seek sympathetic portrayal of their endeavours to find an identity in a new country.