Balancing the books

Feature Asma Siddiq has channelled a lifelong love of reading into Al Multaqa, a popular Abu Dhabi forum that supports and celebrates authors and their output. The group that was set up 11 years ago is still going strong and gaining influence.

Asma Siddiq has channelled a lifelong love of reading into Al Multaqa, a popular Abu Dhabi forum that supports and celebrates authors and their output. Denise Roig reports on how a group that was set up 11 years ago is still going strong and gaining influence. Ask Asma Siddiq for her business card and you're likely to be handed at least four. "Sorry, I don't have the one for Al Quds University at the moment," Siddiq says. "I'm a housewife, who, yes, does things. I cannot say 'no'. If I can help, I will do it."

But Siddiq, her many friends say, is more than a doer, more than just a busy volunteer or board member. "Her ideas, believe me, are unique," says her long-time friend Ghada Abdul Jabbar, a member of Al Multaqa, the Arabic book club Siddiq started in Abu Dhabi 11 years ago. "I always tell Asma, 'You are a woman ahead of your time'." She's a woman of her time too. As Abu Dhabi opens its arms to the arts, Siddiq is continuing to spearhead projects that support and celebrate books, reading and the written word. The business card that reads: "Asma Siddiq al Mutawaa, Founder, Al Multaqa", reflects the work closest to her heart.

"My father liked to read," explains Siddiq, an Emirati from "the third generation since oil", as she puts it. We're sitting in a serene room in her Al Bateen home: brocade sofas, Orientalist oils, bronze sculptures. A perfect room for cosying up with a good book. "My father was drawn to reading for answers, especially history books, books about our people and our traditions." When he travelled to Egypt he always brought a book home for his third child - Siddiq is one of 10 - often the work of Egyptian writers such as Naguib Mahfouz. "Very little was translated into Arabic then. But we did read Dickens and Tolstoy in translation. There was not so much media then, no TV. We liked to read."

Sheikh Zayed, she explains, encouraged young people to learn English, which they studied in government schools. Siddiq pulls a mock-stern face when she speaks of one English teacher in particular: "She was very strict." That rigour paid off when she was a young mother of four, hungry for new books and new writers. "It was never really that hard to get books here. The Abu Dhabi Book Fair started in the Eighties; All Prints, the book and art supply shop, in the Seventies."

The owner's sister knew Siddiq and her literary interests. "Bushra kept her eyes open for books for me and would call, 'Asma, I have a book here I think you'd like'." Even then, Siddiq's taste was for novels, "though I did read social history and biography as well." On trips to London with her husband, Siddiq expanded her library, buying mostly books in Arabic. But her first book club, which she started 20 years ago, was an English group. "I'm still with them," she says, "although I've been so busy this year, I haven't gone often. I miss it."

It was this club that inspired her to create Al Multaqa, now an official Unesco reading club. Twenty-five women strong, it is a project that continues to occupy her mind, time and spirit. Last year, without a word of Arabic, I attended a meeting of Al Multaqa and was knocked out by it: once a fortnight, 20 to 25 women gather to discuss a serious book in a serious manner. Forty-five minutes before the discussion was due to start, members began to arrive, Siddiq rising each time to kiss them on both cheeks. ("We've become like a family now." ) Her long-time friend Ghada Hatim, consultant to the regional office of Médecins Sans Frontières, had flown in from Doha.

Aida Kassissieh, another long-time member, admitted that although she was not much younger than Siddiq, "She sometimes feels like my mother. If I'm reluctant or slow to finish a book, Asma says, 'Come on! You have to finish it!' She gives us a lot of enthusiasm. She is amazing. She knows what she wants." That evening's discussion was about the last of the Arabic Booker shortlisted novels. They had read five and were now taking on the sixth, with the Algerian novelist Wassini al Araj and the Egyptian literary critic Salah Fadl, both ensconced on a sofa in Siddiq's living room, weighing in with their views. The discussion - focused on Yusef Zeydan's Beelzebub, the controversial novel that would later win the prize - was lively, intense and open.

The discussion, Siddiq explains, has evolved over the years. "The analysis is more about the book now, rather than an analysis of the characters." To keep themselves challenged, the group occasionally reads a novel, then watches a film based on it, such as Love In The Time Of Cholera, then talks about the differences. During Ramadan this year, Al Multaqa members read stories from 1,001 Arabian Nights. "We'd wanted to read and discuss it before, but how do you talk about such a book? Finally, we decided to look at it from three different angles over three separate evenings: how it showed the times, religion and politics, and the position of women."

Over the years Siddiq has built close ties with both Arab writers and publishers. "It is good to have this exchange between writers and readers. Writers are very important to us. We appreciate them." Siddiq wants to take Al Multaqa to a larger audience. "When you do something and it's successful, you want to pass it on. Maybe you are not the first person to do it, nor probably the last. But let us take this outside and make it available to other people." She went to the Frankfurt Book Fair for the first time last year, as the guest of Kitab. Besides meeting authors and publishers, Siddiq forged a friendship with a Munich book club. "They are the same like us," she says. "The same pleasures, the same problems. Sometimes five people come, sometimes 20. You have to be patient and you have to continue."

Al Multaqa has a huge presence at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. The club's salon is much like Siddiq's home: sofas with luxurious cushions, Persian carpets, tea and sweets at every turn. And readings by visiting authors practically on the hour. The salon is an oasis of hospitality and dialogue amid the buying and selling of books. Siddiq, of course, will be there, but as she said earlier, it's time to grow her "baby". She and Al Multaqa members have just signed a contract for a new project with the Emirates Foundation that will bring books to the street, hosting readings by local and visiting writers in cafes around the city. "Insha'Allah, we will begin soon."

The readings will be in both English and Arabic, but her reader's heart will always be reserved for Arabic. "It's our language," she says. "My language is my identity. Something got lost when the new generation of Emiratis became educated in English. I'm sorry about that sometimes." She tells me with obvious happiness that her daughter-in-law called recently to tell her, "I want to read in Arabic again."

As I watched her friends settle themselves on the circle of sofas. I remember what she once said about the place of reading in a life: "When you read, you live more fully. You cannot widen your mind without reading. Reading gives you vision." Al Multaqa's salon at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (March 2-7) is located in Hall B, Stand E46. Arabic Booker Prize authors will be among those reading and speaking. For more information, email or call Aida Kassissieh on 050 611 3204.