A plan to share Emirati stories with the world

Emirati publishers and writers are being encouraged to tell our stories through their unique voices, writes Sheikha Bodour

The Sharjah International Book Fair demonstrates our interest in reading.  Antonie Robertson / The National
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Recently, I launched an initiative, 1,001 Titles, in collaboration with the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) and the Ministry of Culture. The initiative, which is being managed and funded by Knowledge Without Borders in Sharjah, aims to encourage and support Emirati authors to publish books that will enrich our libraries with home-grown stories and ideas.

The initiative came as a result of a study I commissioned as a founder, former president and patron of the EPA. Its aim was to understand the challenges facing the publishing industry and gain a deeper insight into the dilemmas we face as publishers and knowledge creators.

The results were dismal and did not reflect well on the efforts that were being made to support our language and culture. During my tenure as president of the association, we noticed that there was a massive dip in publications.

In the past few years alone, the number of books published in the UAE has dropped from 431 ­titles a year to 340.

With this alarming rate of decline, it was important and urgent to make the clarion call to revolutionise the publishing industry. We needed to uphold our culture and heritage using publishing as the platform and active catalyst. We needed to publish more of what we can call our own.

We noticed that many publishers chose to get their ISBNs (the International Standard Book Number that all books must carry) from neighbouring countries, mostly Lebanon, where they are free. Hence these titles, despite coming from UAE publishers and authors, were being registered as Lebanon’s cultural and intellectual property.

We also noticed that although there was a decrease in the number of published titles, there was a surprising increase in the number of publishers in the UAE. So what was happening? It was not difficult to figure out: publishers from other countries such as Lebanon and Syria were setting up shop and building their companies in the UAE. They were being attracted by the entrepreneurial mindset of the newly formed, young and active publishers’ association that has resolved to make the UAE a conducive place to set up their businesses.

To boost production, we created training programmes, invited them to international book fairs, supported them in printing, publishing and selling their books, not only to the Arabic market but beyond, internationally for the Arab diaspora. And yet, after all this effort, there was no change.

This might seem like a minor issue to some people, and of little consequence, but it is not.

The President, Sheikh Khalifa, has announced that 2016 is the Year of Reading and many exciting initiatives were announced. Children were encouraged to read, read and read. But what would they be reading? If local publishers’ content was declining rapidly it could only mean that Emirati people would be consuming material from other countries, potentially reading “other stories” and interpreting them as “their stories”. In this day and age, when lines between cultures, borders and languages are obsolete, identity becomes a subjective issue.

Are we reading stories about others to define ourselves or are we interpreting others’ political, social and cultural events and making them ours? What about our voices? Don’t they need to be heard, documented, recorded, written about and discussed extensively in schools and book clubs? This is what the 1001 Titles initiative is about – a reflection of who we are and who we have been.

Cultural content feeds our souls and enriches our thoughts. So, to understand ourselves better and be well versed in our idiosyncrasies, don’t we need to have home-grown original content? Shouldn’t we nurture local writers and talented individuals who can enrapture us with their version of our world? Their content, their reflection of our identity, will not only allow us to identify ourselves but it will also reach out to other countries and societies that want to know about us. These words will tell them what makes us laugh and cry, the colour of our hopes and fears, the joys and sorrows of our yesterdays and tomorrows.

This is what 1,001 Titles will help us to achieve – a better understanding of ourselves that, in turn, will allow others to better understand us.

In the next two years we will be encouraging Emirati publishers and writers to tell our stories through their unique voices. Through a grant of Dh5 million, publishers will provide support to undiscovered writers and unpublished poets, giving a voice to the unwritten words of Emirati literary talents.

The Ministry of Culture has generously donated 1001 free ISBNs to support this initiative and United Printing Press, our printing partner in this project, has provided huge discounts on printing and storage.

It is my hope that by the end of this project, not only will we have 1,001 new stories to share but also new writers, new ideas and new debates to engage in. Our people, telling our stories. This is our chance to make our voice heard locally and globally and to be a part of this content creation that can be used to define us in coming years. As Umberto Eco, the literary icon who recently passed away, once said: “To survive, you must tell stories”. The 1,001 Titles will be our stories.

Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi is the founder and patron of the EPA, founder and patron of the UAE Board on Books for Young People, founder and chief executive of Kalimat Publishing Group, and head of Knowledge Without Borders organising committee