As a member of Al Multaqa ("the gathering" in Arabic), one of the longest-running book clubs in Abu Dhabi, Rana Minzalje is a self-confessed bookaholic. "I read a lot, often after everyone in the house has gone to bed. All my life I've loved to read, ever since I was a little girl." She's met her match among fellow Al Multaqa members. "Sometimes, we read a book a week, like after summer break when we feel our minds have got lazy," she says, laughing.
There isn't a lazy mind in evidence on a recent evening when close to 20 women gathered in a spacious Al Bateen home to discuss Beelzebub (Azazeel) by the Egyptian writer Yusuf Zeydan. The novel has already stirred up plenty of controversy in Egypt and has these readers on the edge of their brocade couches. As they go around the circle - a democratic process with each member having her say, some from prepared notes - I'm reminded again that a book club doubles one's pleasure. First, there's the pleasure of reading a book; then there's the pleasure of talking about it.
Aedan Lake, the communications and public relations manager of Magrudy's, knows about those pleasures, having run a book group out of the main Dubai store and having helped other groups get started with their reading lists. "When someone finds a book they love, they want to talk about it," he says, adding that in Dubai where life can be transient, people are hungry to connect. You know the feeling, he says: "You've just read this amazing book that's changed your life and there's no one to tell!"
While the number of book clubs running in the UAE is hard to pin down - precisely because of that transience - interest continues to grow, according to Valsan Mamgalassery, the manager of the Magrudy's in Abu Dhabi. "At least once a week, I receive an order from a local book club. Book clubs are a good opportunity to gather and discuss something of mutual interest. I find people want to do something while they're here."
This was what I had in mind when I arrived in Abu Dhabi last autumn. One of the pieces of home I knew I would miss most was my 20-year-running book club in Montreal. Over those years, we read books we loved, some we barely made it through, and many we would never have read (let alone finished!) otherwise. We debated and listened and emptied many a teapot. We came to know one another in ways we hadn't expected.
"When you share over books, you come to know how someone thinks about love, religion, politics," says Minzalje, who has been a member of Al Multaqa for 12 years. (Asma Seddiq, the group's founder, opens her home for the twice-monthly meetings and orders books for members.) "We have very good friends among us now. Being in a book club teaches us how to accept other points of view." In fact, Al Multaqa was recently accepted into the network of Unesco book groups. With 3,700 book clubs spread over 100 countries, these groups are pledged to support Unesco's objective to know "the other" and to support and understand cultural pluralism. These goals won't be hard for Al Multaqa to embrace. With members from Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, Sudan, Jordan, Tunisia, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Territories, "we're the United Nations!" Minzalje says with a laugh.
The book being discussed this particular evening will put tolerance to the test. I don't understand Arabic, but Minzalje has clued me in about Azazeel and the furore it's created in some circles. Set in fifth-century Egypt and Syria, Zeydan's novel focuses on what followed Rome's adoption of Christianity, the doctrinal conflicts and the suppression of dissent and doubt. "Zeydan is a Muslim writer, but you can hardly believe that because he's so versed in Christianity," Minzalje explains. "What he's really asking is why we don't leave space for every question in religion. Let's ask the questions."
The women sit forward when their turns come to speak. There is much head-nodding and note-taking. The last speaker is so animated, the tiny gold ornaments on the sleeves of her abaya shimmy. In the end, if there isn't total agreement, there is the satisfaction of opinions voiced and listened to. Even after several rounds of tea, coffee and chocolates, the conversation continues. The laughter, too. As in the best book clubs, the books are taken seriously without the members taking themselves too seriously.
This year, Al Multaqa members have worked their way through some serious reading: the six novels shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. But in past years, says Minzalje, "We've focused on Arabic translations of Chinese, Japanese, South African, South American and Turkish writers. We try to cover the world in books." The group reads not one, but three, books from a country. "You can really touch the heritage when you read several books from a region."
A group of younger women, one of whom is Minzalje's 24-year-old daughter, Lama Wazzan, has been inspired by Al Multaqa. Though this group is only a few months old, they've read a number of novels already, including last year's Man Booker Prize winner, The White Tiger. Book selections alternate between those written in English and Arabic. "A lot of us were educated in English, and actually find it difficult to read in Arabic," explains Wazzan. "This is a perfect way to improve our Arabic, to hold on to our language."
Like her mother, she's grateful for the doors her club has opened. "We get to discuss social, religious and historical issues, in addition to literature," she explains. "I've been introduced to new schools of thought." The experience has even brought her closer to her mother. "We're reading some of the same books as my mother's group. Now there is something else for us to talk about." As my Montreal group discovered after reading more than 100 books together, sometimes there's more to talk about when you don't love a book. Or when the group is strongly divided. One of our more memorable meetings took place on a sultry evening on a rooftop terrace as we thrashed it out over a collection of Alice Munro stories. Two of the members were pregnant at the time; two of us were raising young daughters as single mothers. We debated deep into the night about the role of mothers and daughters, husbands and wives. And then we drank more tea.
"I think you even get something out of a book you hate," says Jennifer Robins. Having started a book group in Boston - "It's still going," she says - Robins knew she wanted books and company in her new home, too. Her Abu Dhabi group, which numbers about eight members, has devised a democratic way to choose their monthly reads. "Whoever's hosting picks the book," she explains over coffee in a quiet cafe. "The only allowable reason for vetoing a book is if you've read it already." The group has recently read and discussed Malcolm Gladwell's Blink and The Tipping Point, Rajaa Alsanea's The Girls of Riyadh, David Sedaris's When You are Engulfed in Flames, the graphic novels Maus and Persepolis, and The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga. "This month we're reading the teen vampire novel Twilight," she says, smiling and shrugging. "You end up reading books you wouldn't otherwise read." She adds that her preference is to go "heavy, light, heavy, light".
My new book club here - we come from all over the Commonwealth and the United States - may follow that advice. Deciding at our first meeting in December to read books from the region, we plunged right in with the heavyweights: Orhan Pamuk and Elias Khoury. Busy women all, we're now thinking we'll need to sprinkle in some lighter (smaller) books. Next: The Girls of Riyadh. Still, depth trumps entertainment for readers like Minzalje. "When you read a book for a book club you look for the depth, even in a book you're not enchanted with. Sometimes you force yourself to finish a book simply because you want to be in the discussion. I always find that any book will add something to you and to your life."
For those interested in starting a book club, there are many websites, such as www.book-clubs-resource.com. The Abu Dhabi International Book Fair runs from today to Sunday at the Abu Dhabi National Exhibition Centre. Al Multaqa will host writers at its fair booth every day at 11am and 5pm.