The Gulf nation’s endeavors to change the culture of oral storytelling into one of reading
When renowned author and illustrator Maitha al-Khayat started writing in 2009 she knew of only one or two other Arabic-language children’s authors in her home country, the United Arab Emirates.
Existing Arabic picture books were far inferior to those written in English, with subpar illustrations and poor paper quality. Having spent much of her youth in the U.S. and UK, al-Khayat learned English by reading children’s books at the library.
“The English-language picture books I saw as a child looked like masterpieces,” she told The Media Line. A decade ago, the writer made a decision to fill the gap that existed in her home market.
Today she estimates that there are between 20 and 25 children’s authors in the UAE. Part of the reason the number is low stems from the myriad challenges within the local publishing industry. Emirati authors are not afforded the same rights as that of their peers in the West. Writers hardly ever receive a down payment, and literary agents don’t exist so authors are forced to approach publishers themselves, al-Khayat explained. Add to that the fact that the majority of publishers pay poorly.
“Illustrators are even worse off,” she added.
The lack of children’s authors is also due to priorities within the educational system. Oil wealth meant that education was largely focused on related fields like engineering.
“No one wanted to go into the arts, but that’s changing now,” she asserted.
Moreover, the UAE does not have a literary tradition. According to Bettina Quabius, the project manager behind ‘Books – Made in UAE’ at the Goethe-Institut Gulf Region, stories were always passed on by word of mouth and not written down. “The UAE is an oral society,” she told The Media Line.
Even today, reading is primarily associated with schoolwork. “The concept of reading for pleasure is foreign,” Shelley Lawson, an English instructor at the Higher Colleges of Technology, told The Media Line. This is partly due to the fact that spoken Arabic has a vocabulary that is entirely distinct from written Arabic. “It is like Shakespearean English; it’s completely different,” Lawson contended.
The lack of a literary tradition in the Emirates has naturally resulted in a dearth of published works in general. There is no such thing as a free public library and there are few brick-and-mortar bookshops. The ones that do exist have a small inventory, she explained.
According to Lawson, stationary stores often double as bookstores. “While you might be lucky enough to find a bookshop in a mall, the selection is akin to what you find from a vendor at the airport.”
People resort to ordering books online or else make a decision about what reading materials they want to purchase before going into the store, removing the impetus for browsing. “If you don’t have a culture of books, how do you know what you want to read?” she asked.
Abu Dhabi has initiated several campaigns to bolster literacy within the population. The UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) launched ‘Books – Made in UAE’ with the aim of developing the skills of local authors and illustrators. According to Eman Mohamed, Programs and Award Executive at UAEBBY, every year new books written by graduates of the program are released on the market.
UAEBBY also established the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, one of the Arab world’s most important children’s prizes. The first awards in six categories are worth a combined 1.2 million dirhams ($327,000). “I don’t think you’ll find this award anywhere else,” Mohamed told The Media Line.
Every year, the leader of the UAE declares a “theme.” President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed al-Nahyan named 2016 the “year of reading.” The theme for 2019 is “tolerance” and according to al-Khayat, children’s books on that topic are expected to be published in the coming year.
Many of the new initiatives are part of a bid to preserve Emirati culture, and the Arabic language in particular, al-Khayat explained.
The efforts have earned recognition from the international community, too. The UN’s cultural agency, UNESCO, named Sharjah as the 2019 World Book Capital. The city, which is the UAE’s third largest, is home to the Sharjah Book Authority, a governmental organization that promotes literacy as well as a children’s reading festival.
Both al-Khayat and Lawson maintain that it is up to individual families to promote a love of reading. According to al-Khayat, parents in the UAE are faced with the same problem of those in the West. “Most of the adults find it really challenging to get their kids to pick up a book when the latter prefer to spend their time on video games and iPads,” she said.
In Lawson’s view, getting people to embrace reading outside of school “will take generations.”
“Parents don’t know that you sit with your children and read to them. They need to learn how,” she said.
But exposing children to books from a young age is key to breaking that cycle, she said.
(Tara Kavaler is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Studies Program)