Book publisher radiates Arab dynamism

Dar El-Shams, a rapidly expanding Dubai-based book publisher, aims to build bridges between East and West by providing a literary outlet for fresh, dynamic voices in the Arab world.
Suzy Kassem. Photograph courtesy of the author
Suzy Kassem. Photograph courtesy of the author

The book peddler, then in his eighth decade of life, is identified in the story only as the Professor. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Professor was celebrated for his passion for and knowledge of literature, and for the carefully selected books he'd pull by cart each day at dawn down Sharat Hamamat Street, in the Cairo suburb of Cleopatra.

The suburb's name evolved from the local legend that Cleopatra once patronised a bathhouse there. But more important, say two publishing executives from Dubai who once summered in Cairo and came to know the Professor well, is how Egypt's great queen figured into their eventual business plan.

Specifically, the Professor dedicated his book cart to Cleopatra, commemorating her each day as the sun came up, and selling his books until nightfall. For that reason the Dubai partners, who purchased the Professor's books over two decades and sought out his poetry volumes and thought-provoking stories, honoured his legacy 11 years after his death, when they named the publishing house they founded in the UAE.

The name they chose was "Dar El-Shams', which translates to "Behind the Sun" and references the Professor's daily forays at dawn.

Dar El-Shams, founded in 1999, has since grown to 100 to 150 Arabic titles a year and to offices in Cairo and Mumbai and, lately, London and Boston, as the owners have sought a wider international audience. Accordingly, they've just published their first offering in English: a young adult collection of essays and poems titled Rise Up and Salute the Sun, by the Egyptian-American writer Suzy Kassem.

Certainly the sun seems to be a sub-theme here, and the publishing house's investors might not argue that point. Just don't label Awakened Press, the name of Dar El-Shams' offshoots outside the UAE, as an "Islamic" publisher. "The works and writings we publish are not always going to be, nor will they have to be, Islamic," according to Jeremy Martin, publicity director and head of the two-person Boston office.

"We don't want to become categorised as a religious publisher because, quite frankly, we're not ... for us, it's not about the religion [as much] as it is about the messaging."

For Awakened Press, "messaging" entails bridge-building between East and West, Martin explains. And in that regard, Dar El-Shams, according to company press materials, aims to carry on the Professor's legacy. "Specialising in literature from fresh, dynamic voices, Awakened Press focuses on producing thought-provoking books that build cultural bridges and have the capacity to change the world," the materials state. "Every generation has its philosopher—a writer or an artist who captures the imagination of their time." To find that individual, Awakened Press intends to publish writers and thinkers "from all parts of the globe".

Accordingly, Awakened has gone global in the choice of their next two English-language authors (for autumn 2011 and spring 2012): Veena Shah, the Indian-born author of Tikka Boutique, a young adult coming of age story about a bride who emigrates to the US with a man she's never before met; and Israeli author Tehilla Chamiel, whose young adult novel, Tears from Tel-Aviv, concerns a young Israeli woman with a passion for singing who winds up stranded in California.

Both authors are rooted in the contexts they write about, says Martin - unlike such current big names as Craig Thompson (Habibi); Zoe Ferraris (City of Veils), and Jacqueline St Joan (My Sisters Made of Light).

This connection to material was one of the elements that interested Awakened Press in Suzy Kassem. As company materials tell it, in 2008 a Dar El-Shams staffer named Ramy Habib was browsing through books at a monthly gathering of literary fans in downtown Cairo. There, in a long narrow alley, "lyricists, poets, journalists, screenwriters, authors and storytellers of every creed swarm around small tables covered in glasses of tea, while bouncing their ideas and philosophies over clouds of hookah smoke."

Suddenly, Habib heard a distinct voice with a broken accent passionately shouting, "Ya, Chabab! Ya Chabab!" The voice belonged to Kassem, an American woman with Egyptian parents who now lives in Cairo. Kassem fills the definition of bridge-builder, Martin says. Born in Toledo, Ohio, and educated in Switzerland, she travelled many times between Saudi Arabia and Europe throughout her youth.

Her book, too, spans the world, from Egypt to Seventh Street in New York and offers poems and fanciful essays, including one in which a young Egyptian girl talks philosophy with the Sphinx and another about a young woman who craves a caramel apple from Coney Island while confined to the rooftop where she leapt to her death.

"Each section addresses different seasons in a person's life or different angles of the human condition," Kassem explains of her work, via email. "If you don't understand something today, read it again in a year ... Some passages could be very beneficial to you in critical stages in life, while others are there simply to entertain. The cover [a somewhat cheesy, graphic novel-style array of growling panthers, gorillas, and a Middle Eastern vixen] is designed to entice the youth, but the content is designed to be understood by all."

Kassem has explored other genres - she is a filmmaker who tangled unsuccessfully with Egyptian authorities over her script about disenchanted youth fleeing "suffocation" in their homeland. But she is also enthusiastic about Dar El-Shams' mission.

"We really need a rainbow of positive, multinational voices to cultivate a beautiful global garden for our children," she writes. "Dar El-Shams is on the right path of discovering writers that can move readers to become world citizens" - especially in a post-9/11 world when English readers are extremely interested in Arab and Muslim cultures.

Kassem adds that she's grateful that Awakened Press and its parent company aren't limiting themselves to those subjects.

"These guys just want to be the Penguin of the Middle East," she says.

Awakened Press, from what Martin says, is also free from financial concerns. Yet the English language subsidiary is being leisurely about output - about one book per quarter is the plan: "Quality, not quantity," Martin says.

Still, the start-up is making progress, Martin says. Kassem's book is now available for the Kindle on Amazon, and social media outreach is in the works. The company, which is focusing on libraries and learning institutions, also has a new distributor, Brodart, and has partnered with Book Hub for trade shows and B2B deals. Plans include aligning with the One Spirit Book Club and with the US's National Public Radio.

Worldwide, Dar El-Shams has 47 employees and what Martin describes as a collaborative style, plus interest in young adult and adult books alike, as well as fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. "All of us have a voice in the company," he says. We all just sort of pass along manuscripts and give different feedback and make that decision together.

"We're the first to have forayed into this area, so we're scot free for the moment," Martin adds of the publisher's East to West mission. "But there will be other competitors that will come into this market, inevitably."

And that market? "Getting to know the world is a healthy thing," Martin responds, "because there's too much ignorance for people to dismiss something without understanding it or giving it a chance."

One imagines that the Professor would agree.


Joan Oleck is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, New York.

Published: December 1, 2011 04:00 AM


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