In a wide-ranging interview, the UAE’s minister for culture outlines the policy context in which many at the IPA Middle East seminar hope Arabic literature can thrive.
UAE’s Noura Al Kaabi in Amman: ‘Nurturing Talent’

Delegates to the IPA’s Middle East regional semiar in Amman, Image: Porter Anderson

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

‘To Leverage the Power of Technology’

As the second and final day of the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) Middle East seminar in the Jordanian capital approaches Tuesday (October 1), few speakers may be awaited with as much interest as is Noura Al Kaabi, the United Arab Emirates’ minister of culture and knowledge development.

UAE’s Noura Al Kaabi in Amman: ‘Nurturing Talent’As readers know, the Amman event is a first for the Middle East region, as well as for the IPA. Produced in association with the Union of Jordanian Publishers, the program has as its goal an examination of the systemic issues facing publishers, authors, distributors, and others in the supply chain of the Arab world.

And in Monday’s (September 30) opening, there were at times some clear lines of divided opinion being laid down, most particularly in generational terms in the outlook for the digital dynamic in publishing.

Older, more traditionally based players from the region seemed to suggest that the impact of digital processes will pass without lasting effects on a region of such rech literary heritage as the Arab world.

By contrast, younger speakers, including some who represent the entrepreneurial pathway sought by startups, voiced impatience and frustration with such views and their potential to hold back cultures that need the most effective contemporary embrace of publishing’s potential possible to bring forward more Arab voices in a world that needs the broadest possible conversation.

“I want to see the emergence of new and young writers encouraged to become the next Khalil Gibran or the next Naguib Mahfouz.”Noura Al Kaabi, UAE minister of culture

And as it happens, the UAE’s Al Kaabi steps into a large room of such healthy, collegial tension for a panel presentation on “Developing the Next Generation of Publishers, Writers, and Artists.”

In other words, she has her work cut out for her.

And Al Kaabi is particularly well prepared for this debate, as the president of Zayed University and a board member of the UAE’s National Media Council. She knows the competing interests of modernity and tradition and of older and younger visions of the creative industries’ future.

In an interview with the minister conducted shortly before her appearance in Amman, we began by asking her what goes into the kind of top-level cultivation of a reading culture that supports, for example, the emirate Sharjah becoming home to Publishing City, the world’s first free trade zone for the book business, as well as the first Arabian venue named a UNESCO World Book Capital.

‘Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader’

Noura Al Kaabi: As you may know, Arabs have an old saying: “Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads.”

UAE’s Noura Al Kaabi in Amman: ‘Nurturing Talent’

Noura Al Kaabi

We are happy today that the UAE is further establishing itself as a book-fair hub and a country that truly appreciates the value of art and culture. Sharjah is now a world-renowned cultural hub; its Sharjah International Book Fair [October 30 to November 9] attracts almost twice the size of the emirate’s resident population and has paved the way for the emirate to be named UNESCO’s World Book Capital for 2019.

What seemed like an unlikely case 10 years ago is today’s reality, thanks to our visionary leadership and constant quest for learning and discovery–and most importantly, the belief in the power of the written word.

When I think about our nation’s commitment to promoting reading and publishing, the words of American journalist and editor Margaret Fuller come to mind. She said: “Today a reader, tomorrow a leader.”

This perfectly embodies our approach to promoting literature through the publishing sector as to preserve our culture for generations to come. Our founding father Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan long envisioned a role for our society to play in terms of championing books and literacy. He believed in education and culture as fundamental pillars for building a strong, modern state and developing international relations. In fact, he was the one who launched Abu Dhabi International Book Fair back in 1981.

Since then, the UAE has been on a path to transform itself into a literacy beacon by rolling out extensive programs to attract the world’s greatest publishers. At the same time, it continues to offer windows of opportunities to both local and Arab publishers to exchange intellectual knowledge, gain expertise, and engage between different civilisations and cultures.

“Currently, most of our publishing is focused on translating content from elsewhere. We have an opportunity to reverse this trend and increase the share of Arabic books and content worldwide.”Noura Al Kaabi, UAE minister of culture

With that in mind, the UAE now hosts multiple book and literature fairs including the Emirates Literature Festival, Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, Al-Ain Book Fair, Al Dhafra Book Fair, Sharjah International Book Fair, and Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival, all of which are now renowned across the region and attract visitors from across the world.

Another important dimension that shapes our commitment to literacy and books–and one that’s very close to my heart–is supporting talent.

Over the past years, we’ve been focusing on working with partners across the private and public sector to champion the culture of reading while putting into place frameworks that enable us to discover, nurture, and support talent in the publishing sector.

Take for instance Dubai Abulhoul Alfalasi, she’s an emerging Emirati author in her 20s, who published , the first Emirati fantasy novel in English recently. She was also named Young Arab of the Year in 2016 at the first Young Arab Awards for her work in youth advocacy, literature and journalism, and we saw her prominence at the Emirates Literature Festival in Dubai over the last two years.

Her novel was so well received in both the UAE and abroad that HE Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the Ruler of Dubai has asked for a movie to be produced based on the story. This is result of recognition and nurturing of talent in our industry.

While I strongly believe that instilling in our young talent a passion for reading is good, it’s not everything.  It’s also critical to offer content that promotes reading in our population; we can’t expect to see an improvement in reading habits if all our publishing sector offers is foreign concepts and titles that don’t speak to the local audience.

Currently, most of our publishing is focused on translating content from elsewhere. We have an opportunity to reverse this trend and increase the share of Arabic books and content worldwide.

As we continue to focus on addressing the present reality of the sector, we also think about its future.

A key question we’re aiming to address is how to leverage the power of technology for the benefit of the Arab publishing sector. With audiobooks, podcasts, and digital novels and reading devices like Kindles, the opportunities are immense, we have the vision and talent to make it tomorrow’s reality.

Our readers are presented with an abundance of options in terms of diversity, accessibility, and quality but they are eager for homegrown content; the onus is on us to pave the way for a sustainable future for Arabic literature and leave no stone unturned.

Needless to say, with so much success in the world of arts and letters, many of us are eager to see Arabic literature and its publishing industry grow and strengthen.

freepicker: What are some of the key needs that have been identified as most pressing among the region’s writers, publishers, and other creative workers?

NAK: The preservation of the Arabic language and literature is a key goal. Globalization has led to a number of languages regressing, and Arabic is unfortunately listed as one of them. It’s imperative to preserve our national and regional dialects, and I think that contemporary literature can achieve this.

“Our readers are presented with an abundance of options in terms of diversity, accessibility, and quality but they are eager for homegrown content; the onus is on us to pave the way for a sustainable future for Arabic literature and leave no stone unturned.”Noura Al Kaabi, UAE minister of culture

Something that gave me a great deal of pride to hear was the fact that Jokha Alharthi, an Omani writer, became the first Arabic author to win the Man Booker International Prize earlier this year for her novel   [Sandstone Press, 2018],which featured her homeland’s post-colonial transformation.

This is such a great win for the region, having an Arab representation for an international prize of such prestige. It opens doors for global audiences to witness local perspectives with regard to historical events and also exposes them to our rich culture.

This is just one example of how successful writers’ work can be exported to the rest of the world. By doing so, we offer our young generation role models they can emulate and be proud of.

I think one of the best ways to ensure that we preserve our language and culture is to nurture a personal passion for reading among our youth through schools and [using] study materials that meet their needs and interests.

For example, the educational material can include extensive classical and contemporary Arabic literature and through these efforts, the publishing industry has the opportunity to inspire the next generation and instill in them a passion for reading and writing.

This was the key insight that led to the UAE announcing March as a month of reading with an institutional effort to develop the National Law for Reading.

The law is the first of its kind, and establishes reading as a sustainable cultural value.

It sets legislative frameworks, executive programs and specific government responsibilities to establish the value of reading in the UAE. This was an unprecedented legislative move and it supported us in developing the National Strategy for Reading 2026, which includes 30 major initiatives in education, health, culture, community development, media and content.

The reading month was launched as an annual occasion to encourage reading, develop policies around reading, and allow us to measure the progress of our society through a literary engagement.

PP: When it comes to a ministerial response to the challenges you see, what do you find works best in gaining traction?

NAK: Listening to the people, the creatives, the talent, and responding with a clear plan to address their needs is key.

“Globalization has led to a number of languages regressing, and Arabic is unfortunately listed as one of them. It’s imperative to preserve our national and regional dialects, and I think that contemporary literature can achieve this.”Noura Al Kaabi, UAE minister of culture

Panels such as the ones at IPA [in this week’s Middle East seminar] enable us to connect with other partners across borders to exchange knowledge and experiences. At the same time, these events offer talent platforms, to be vocal about their needs, and to help us work together in addressing the challenges faced by the publishing sector.

Locally, we are working extensively to meet the UAE’s cultural agenda as part of the country’s Vision 2021 program. This will determine our competitive knowledge economy through entrepreneurship and emerging talent by unlocking the potential of nationals and enabling them to be a driving force of the country’s economic development.

A key part of this strategy is to start with education right from the very beginning; instilling an entrepreneurial culture in schools and universities to foster generations endowed with values of leadership, creativity, responsibility and ambition. This is supported by a curated and targeted support of the arts in school curricula. The challenges are ever evolving, and we are committed to listening carefully and working on identifying them as foundational steps towards providing a solution.

PP: In many markets we see government-commercial partnerships form between ministries and corporate entities to bring the community and its commercial leadership in line with the goals of a given program or plan. Is this something that you’ve found useful, too?

NAK: Absolutely, I think the UAE works best when we join forces with one another and have a clear roadmap to guide our vision.

Building a healthy ecosystem to support this cultural renaissance that the Middle East is in need of requires the collaboration of all the sectors from governmental bodies to private institutions.

With regard to publishing, the Emirates Publishers Association was set up to serve the publishing sector in the UAE, and to provide Emirati publishers with a platform that helps raise their efficiency through training and mentoring programmes. The UAE continues to forge new international partnerships to support and protect the works of creatives. For that reason, many international publishers and artists set up their businesses in the UAE.

Today’s cultural scene is rife with ambitious initiatives. Through commissioned art projects, educational programs, infrastructural development, bilateral ties and cross-national exchanges, and a diverse range of organisations coming together, we’ve achieved spaces for dialogue, creativity and social change.

PP: And what are your key goals for cultural development and particularly publishing and books and reading in the UAE for the next five years?

NAK: A personal hope for the entire Arab world is to witness the rise of Arabic literature, and the reemergence of the golden ages of Arabic publishing and reading. It would be great to see our young writers’ books becoming global bestsellers–we have many great examples from our shared history, but we need to shape the future today. I want to see the emergence of new and young writers encouraged to become the next Khalil Gibran or the next Naguib Mahfouz.

“A personal hope for the entire Arab world is to witness the rise of Arabic literature, and the reemergence of the golden ages of Arabic publishing and reading. “Noura Al Kaabi, UAE minister of culture

With this in mind, we realise that the UAE has a lot to offer in this space with several successful initiatives and platforms. As such, it’s the UAE Ministry of Culture and Knowledge Development’s key goal to establish the UAE as an inspirational model of reading and publishing in the region. A model that instigates changes, nurtures talent and builds a rich intellectual legacy for future generations to learn from.

This will come to fruition through the celebration of reading and the encouragement of writing and recording.

I believe that reading allows us to explore the world around us and learn about different world cultures. I would like to see Arab literature more widely recognized globally.  Through our local Emirati initiatives and through regional Arab platforms like IPA’s Amman seminar, we hope to bring about a positive change in our society and sustain the power of reading in the present and future generations to come.

 

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