Why Arabic books don’t sell as well as those in English

Rym Ghazal writes about the pleasures of books and reading in Arabic

A student at Al Ittihad Model School reads a book in the library.  Philip Cheung / The National
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‘A book is a garden carried in the pocket,” says an Arabian proverb.

For those of us who already love to read, the proverb makes sense to us as we discover so much beauty, colour and imagination in books as we do in nature. But for those who dislike reading, no amount of repeating proverbs helps.

There were some interesting lessons learnt after the great success of my feature on the Arab Reading Challenge, for which I worked with Buzoor’s founder Zeyna Al Jabri. We came up with a list of 50 recommended books in Arabic for different age groups. Actually, we ended up compiling a list of 100 books but couldn’t fit them all in. It helped inspire The National to support the #UAEreads campaign during the 2016 Year of Reading.

I discovered so many beautiful gems out there in Arabic literature for children. I have to admit, I was surprised such great books don’t get as much recognition as English-language titles. One of the biggest issues is distribution. You simply can’t find them that easily unless you contact companies such as Buzoor or the publishers themselves. Book fairs are important to promote and provide these books to the Arab public. When I asked bookstores, they told me that Arabic books don’t sell as well as English ones, so it is not viable to stock many of them. So it becomes a vicious cycle.

I discovered another thing, that a lot of parents – and it is changing, thankfully – just leave their child with the book and expect them to read it on their own. They also tend to blame the teachers when their child struggles with the Arabic language. It is everyone’s role to make sure a child masters a language.

An interesting personal experience occurred while I was working on my own book, Maskoon, about a haunted palace in the UAE and published by Kalimat.

I struggled with Arabic after I got used to reading and working in English. So the publisher provided a language expert, who worked on and edited my sentences. Even though she was credited as a translator, that wasn’t exactly what she did. Arabic needs far more than translation, it needs a particular skill as it is a rich and complex language that offers many ways to describe something that ma be limited to just one or two words in English. Also concepts travel differently in Arabic. Ideas that would be considered perfectly all right in English are hard to present in Arabic. This happened to me as my topic was a bit taboo – a Jinn Queen.

I regularly get requests for the English version and readers often tell me they prefer that one to the Arabic. This is probably because they have difficulty finishing it in Arabic, even though it was purposely written in a more conversational form in Arabic. Some parents found that to be an issue and suggested it should have been written in classical Arabic or not written at all given the genre.

I have heard Arab authors struggle with this, when their work undergoes far more criticism than English-language authors.

That is why a drive to read and write in Arabic is important, as it forces everyone to deal with this issue starting from home.

I noticed a great improvement in my own Arabic after I read more than 100 children’s books.

My judges were a group of Arab children who noticed the difference and liked the latest books better because I read these titles to them in a better way.

This group initially gave me one out of 10. Yes, they were a very harsh crowd of children. Last reading session: six out of 10. One child gave me eight out of 10, as she felt “bad” for me.

“You need to read another 100,” was this eight-year-old’s parting advice to me as she patted me on the head.

It seems everyone is a critic when it comes to Arabic.


On Twitter: @Arabianmau