When an explosion shattered Beirut in August, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi stepped in to restore some of the key libraries in the city – a gesture of love, she says, from one cultural capital to another. Ten years ago, Sheikha Bodour founded Kalimat, that has evolved from being a local children’s book publishing house to having five imprints under it. She is also the vice-president of International Publishers Association (IPA). Widely regarded as a cultural ambassador of the Arab world, Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi talks about the challenges of preserving cultural capital in the wake of Covid-19.
Could you talk about your call for restoration of libraries and cultural centres in Lebanon?
Rebuilding the spirit of a city devastated by a terrible event, such as the one in Beirut last August, takes more than bricks and mortar. The city is its people, not just the buildings. Beirut is a city of history, art and culture. It has been at the centre of Arab cultural development for so long. It has given us many cultural delights, which we have enjoyed, learned and benefitted from. Restoring the destroyed libraries is the least and most natural thing to do to help our brothers and sisters in Beirut to build themselves up from a challenging moment in their history. It’s a gesture of love from one cultural capital, Sharjah, to another cultural capital, Beirut. It is also a gesture of respect and admiration of what Beirut has offered to the wider Arab region. I hope to see the libraries we are restoring open their arms again very soon to the people of Beirut and lead them to a new sense of normalcy.
What makes cultural rehabilitation important in the face of a crisis, such as the one faced by Lebanon?
Integrating cultural rehabilitation in the post-Beirut port explosion rebuilding plans will help make the city resilient, sustainable, and inclusive. It will also help bring more harmony and reconciliation and make Beirut residents to feel safe again. In a way, cultural rehabilitation initiatives will also help restore a sense of community as residents realise that the government cannot be responsible alone for the recovery, and that they need to be part of rebuilding all aspects of their city.
In your view, how has the pandemic challenged cultural capital in this part of the world?
The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged everything and everyone around the world. In this part of the world or otherwise, cultural development depends on funding and on people getting together in conferences, book fairs, art galleries, museums, poetry reading nights, and so on. All of a sudden, all these activities came to a complete halt without warning. One could only try to imagine the impact on cultural development, and I believe we will only know the real ramifications on cultural capital in the next few months. I must add that this current crisis has been particularly critical for the creative sector due to the sudden massive loss of revenues and the fact that many people do not put culture as one of their top priorities. But I believe that today, more than ever, cultural development and content are essential to society as they contribute to the community’s mental well-being.
You have been at the forefront of promoting Arabic literature. In your opinion, does it speak to the modern Arab youth?
Arabic literature is evolving in its natural social, religious, and political habitat, like any other literature in the world. During the past couple of decades, there has been a surge in Arabic literary works directed at Arab teens and youth, and I expect this trend to continue evolving. Youth make up more than half of the Arab world’s population, so it is natural that cultural production, such as literature, focuses on this category of the community. Many youth-focused Arab literary works are firmly positioned in the social realist tradition. Still, I think that Arab youth are hungry for a little more “out-of-the-box” literary works that express their realities as globally connected members of the human family. It’s important to note that globalisation and digitalisation have made the world a small village dominated mainly by Western popular culture, and young people (in the Arab world or elsewhere) are prone to be influenced by these external cultural ideas and tendencies. This is why Arabic literature needs to adapt to the “new” readers’ tastes and habits to help them keep in touch with their heritage. I am happy to see now that many literary works in the Arab world have adapted their style, structure and language to attract more young readers, and I certainly hope to see more in the future.
How have the sensibilities of the young Arab author changed in your opinion?
The rapid social, cultural and political changes in the Arab world during the past decade have led to a clear shift from realism, which perhaps dominated many Arab authors’ literary works, to surrealism and science fiction. This change in genres captures young Arab authors’ attempts to adapt to their local political and cultural realities while providing relatable fiction to their readers. I expect to see more futuristic stories by young Arab authors that capture the population’s collective feelings in an area of the world marked by contradiction, frustration and conflict on one hand and by hope and excitement about the future, with its endless possibilities, on the other.
You’re the first woman vice president of the IPA from the Arab world. How has your work there shaped your view on international publishing?
Working at the international publishing level has given me a deeper appreciation of the role that publishers play in developing the soul and spirit of nations. It is an enormous role and one that is full of complex challenges. Having worked closely with my colleagues from the five continents for many years now, I realise now that publishing has a significant role in building true cultural bridges at a global level, upholding universal human values, such as freedom of expression through publishing, and supporting oppressed or voiceless minorities. My work in IPA has also allowed me to understand the publishing world’s systemic challenges while appreciating the tremendous opportunities that can emerge from global partnerships and their impact on the development of local publishing industries.
Which emerging markets for publishing have taken you by surprise, owing to their untapped potential?
The African publishing market certainly comes to my mind when I think of untapped potential of an emerging market. As a continent, Africa offers the world a fascinating myriad of cultural traditions and human wisdom, which hasn’t yet taken its fair share of recognition worldwide. There are several reasons why the African publishing market has not yet matured to the level where it could or should be. Some reasons are external such as lack of government support, political pressure, and market tendencies, and some are related to the publishers’ experiences and business models. When I assumed my IPA Vice President duties, I worked closely with the IPA’s president, many colleagues from the African publishing world, and others in the global publishing eco-system to shed light on the African publishing industry’s untapped potential. So far, we have organised two very successful African regional seminars that saw the birth of an ambitious action plan and many other sub-initiatives. I am confident that this particular market will have a prominent seat at the global publishing table in the not so far future. The world will be a better place to learn and engage with such a culturally ultra-rich continent.
What are the real challenges of women publishers in the region? How does the PublisHer initiative tackle those?
I think the most significant challenge faced by female publishers boils down to one major challenge, which is the mindset. This is not specific to our region, but as a female publisher who started from this part of the world, I think the mindset was the major challenge. The established, male-dominated perspective led to accepted and unfair practices as normal for a long time, but they were systematically hurting female publishers’ chances to advance in their careers. For example, while the female workforce constitutes most personnel in most major publishing houses, only a few of them have access to a top management or leadership position. The disparity is real and is unfair. Hence, in PublisHer, we tackle the issue of mindset from two sides. First, we engage our male colleagues to encourage a mindset shift towards more balanced roles and working environments. Second, we are encouraging a mindset shift in female publishers while equipping them with the knowledge, network, and tools to assert themselves with confidence and advance in their careers as they wish.
Twelve years after you set it up, what have been some of the major triumphs of Kalimat?
I am proud of the way Kalimat evolved from a local children’s books publishing house into Kalimat Group, which holds now five imprints under its umbrella. The journey from a local Sharjah based start-up to what we are today is in and of itself an achievement as Kalimat Group is gaining traction as a major regional frontrunner in the publishing world. We have ventured into acquiring and selling books rights at the international level as while extending our distribution network to over 15 countries. We published over 400 books, with many of them receiving regional and international accolades. Highly acclaimed Arab and international writers have written many of our published books. We believe that our success cannot be measured by the number of books sold only, but also with the impact of these books on the lives of the readers. This is one of reasons behind the establishment of Kalimat Foundation which aims to empower children in conflict-stricken areas through the gift of reading and literacy.
You have often professed your love for hiking. What has this time indoors been like?
As a jet-setting professional, I have been surprisingly enjoying being on the ground at my home with my family. This downtime has given me plenty of opportunities to reflect, spend much needed time with my children, and catch up on my reading list. I am still meeting my work commitments, but doing so from my home has been an added bonus. Obviously, hiking and travelling will remain some of my favourite activities. Yet, this pandemic has shown me that spending the right amount indoor is very healthy for us mentally, physically, socially and on so many other levels.
What are the perks and perils of digitalisation in local publishing?
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift towards digitalisation in every sector, including publishing. As a result, I think we have passed the phase of looking at digitisation from a “pros and cons” angle and must look at it from a practical one. Digital publishing is a fact on the ground now, and local publishers will have to deal with it. I hope that most of them are revisiting their models to offer at least a portion of their products in digital format. In fact, digitisation is an opportunity for local publishers, particularly new or small ones, because they are still agile and can adapt much faster, they can have access to readers and markets that otherwise would have never been possible for them, they don’t have to commit considerable budgets for distribution and delivery, and they can learn about their readers and their behaviour in a scientifically precise manner. But digital publishing doesn’t come without its challenges. Chief amongst them are violations of intellectual and licensing rights, and this is a challenge that local and international publishers will have to grapple with for the next few years. This is why it will be important for local publishers to collaborate closely with their governments to set up the right legislative environment to protect themselves from piracy.