As a frequent online shopper, I've become somewhat desensitised to the thrill of opening new deliveries, partly because I know exactly what to expect inside. So when a mysterious package wrapped in plain brown paper arrives on my doorstep, decorated with stickers and labelled with various genres – "fiction", "thriller", "dark and atmospheric" – I'm intrigued.
The week prior, I had signed up for a "blind date with a book", a project founded by Dubai resident Mohamed El Mougy, whose alter ego on Instagram is @CitizenBook. The concept is simple: users fill out an online form with their preferences, and within a week, they receive a book hand-picked for them, along with personalised trinkets. They pay Dh70 for each package, plus Dh15 for delivery.
El Mougy, weary of our increasing addiction to smartphones, has embarked on a journey to make reading cool again.
"I have always been a hardcore advocate of digital detoxing," he says. "I try to push everybody in my inner circle to be balanced when it comes to the use of digital technology, especially phones and television."
The entrepreneur works by day as an analyst at a global tech company, and by night developing literary projects as Citizen Book, and admits that he wasn't always an avid bookworm.
"I was more of a casual reader, until 2014 when I moved to Switzerland, and unlike in other countries, people sleep there by 9pm. So, I started spending most of my nights on my terrace reading books, and that was when I became hooked on books, specifically non-fiction," he explains.
Though picking out a book for a complete stranger may be a challenging task, his experience as an analyst helped him come up with a comprehensive online survey. Readers are asked to list their favourite books, genres and singers, in addition to books they’ve already read, and this enables El Mougy to not only select a book for them, but gives him a wider understanding about different demographics of readers.
"Combining all the learning from the form, my list of books I've read (more than 500) and my geeky financial planning and analysis skills, I can build basic tools that help feed all of this in one tool," he explains. A future phase of his project is to create an app, which would be like Spotify, for books, but El Mougy says he is still searching for someone to build it.
After filling out the online form myself, I'm sceptical about what type of book I'll receive. I've listed a variety of genres, from horror to books with female protagonists, and have listed authors such as JK Rowling, Elif Shafak and Jodi Picoult as my favourites. To top it all off, "Don't mess with my comfort zone" is the option I tick at the end of the survey, when I'm asked what sort of book I'd like to receive. El Mougy is confident about his algorithm, but I'm curious to see how my fate will fare with my own blind date.
Later that week, when I rip off the ropelike ribbon and tear open my neatly wrapped package, I'm amazed to see not only a book, but also, a purple notebook (I never did reveal that purple was my favourite colour in the survey), a pink pen topped with a unicorn, and a Harry Potter key ring, along with bookmarks and a personalised note. The book, One Year Later by Sanjida Kay, was thankfully one I had not yet read. A quick scan of the back reveals that it's a thriller about a family grieving the death of a child, and a terrifying secret that won't stay buried. As far as plots go, this one's certainly my cup of tea.
It's clear that not only does a lot of time and effort go into sourcing the books and the personalised gifts, but also in wrapping them all up, and El Mougy says that this step is vital.
"Bear in mind that a lot of people don't read and the package is the first thing that gets them interested in the concept, so it has to be perfect and it has to be personalised, so it captures their attention and makes them feel it's not another soulless corporate product," he says.
Right now, Citizen Book is a one-man team: El Mougy developed the online survey, sources the books and packages them all by himself.
"That's why as soon as I am out of office at about 6pm, I immediately run to my place and start the packaging process," he says. "Until last month I was even delivering the packages myself but the moment the orders crossed 200, I had to depend on a courier for the delivery."
Now, El Mougy has a database of more than 500 readers. Still, the project, he says, is not yet profitable. "As I started only three months ago and didn't expect this demand, I have no partnerships or fixed sources for books. The way I do it is that I buy the books from local libraries here in Dubai and include them in the package, which honestly is the reason why I am not making profit out of it," he says. "My main goal for now is to raise awareness and help people understand the concept."
There's also a philanthropic side to Citizen Book – for each book sold, El Mougy would like to donate a book to an underprivileged child in Africa. Once he has sold 1,000 books, El Mougy will embark on a trip that starts in Egypt and ends in South Africa, to help distribute educational books to children.
"We have already started planning it with a social enterprise in Cairo called Cairo Cycling Geeks [feminists who empower women to ride bikes in cities where it's not easy to do so] where we will schedule a ride on bikes from Cairo's centre to a rural area where children live close to rubbish disposal sites," he says.
Once Citizen Book picks up, El Mougy plans to quit his job in finance, and work full-time on this initiative. In the meantime, he's sending books across the UAE, and working to launch the Silent Book Club in Dubai, where residents can meet for an hour of reading without any distractions.
While a social club with an antisocial mantra may sound ironic, as does using social media to convince residents to undertake a digital detox, El Mougy says Instagram is the main vehicle through which they can reach their target audience, who he describe as: "residents who really want to be part of an engaging community aiming for a change, aiming to detox from modern-day technology and find more space for themselves".