May 29, 2008 / 12:26 PM / 11 years ago

Dubai publisher aims for uplifting Arab literature

DUBAI (Reuters Life!) - Fed up with the “miserable” tone in Arabic literature, a new publishing house in Dubai is trying to rewrite the script with contemporary Arabic language fiction that pays no mind to taboos.

Kaleem Books, an imprint founded by a 36-year-old Emirati businessman, began operations two months ago with a self-set mandate to publish entertaining, readable material to get Arabs talking.

“We’re mining the Arab world for little nuggets of gold,” Omar Saif Ghobash, founder and chief executive, told Reuters.

Kaleem’s first book, published last month, is by Tunisian author Hassouna al-Mosbahi and is based on the true story of a young man who murdered his mother.

“People were surprised Emiratis would publish a Tunisian writer,” Ghobash said. “The purpose is to hold up a mirror to the Arab world.”

While not exactly a joyful topic, Ghobash said the story of matricide was more entertaining than the two books Kaleem rejected for its debut: polemic tales about Sunni and Shi’ite strife in Iraq.

“We were looking for something a little more uplifting,” he said. “The Tunisian novel actually had a story.”

“Hikaya Tunisiyya” had an initial print run of 3,000 copies — small in comparison to top American and European publishers but large for the region where a typical run is less than 1,000 books. Publishing in such numbers is a leap of faith considering the limited distribution capability in the Arab world.

Despite having five percent of the world’s population, the Arab world accounts for only about 1.1 percent of book production, according to the United Nations Arab Human Development Report.

“An abundance of religious books and a relative paucity of books in other fields characterize the Arab book market,” the UN report, which last assessed the market in 2003, said.

The majority of Arab readers favor newspapers and magazines and are mainly interested in current affairs and politics, according to a survey of Arab readership last year for the Next Page Foundation.

Ghobash, an Oxford-educated entrepreneur, was raised by his Russian mother after his Emirati father died. He credits his love of literature to his mother, who fed him a steady diet of Russian classics.

The publisher, who founded a literary prize in his father’s name, also helped start the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Arab Booker Prize.

The first was handed out earlier this year and provided the final impetus for Ghobash to launch his own publishing house.

“They took all these books and created a short list and each of the titles was miserable,” he said. “I asked (the jury) were there any books submitted that weren’t completely miserable and they said ‘no.’”

In a region where some authors tend to pay publishers to have their books printed, Kaleem is also offering better contracts to its writers.

“We give advances on royalties and we provide marketing support which is something that authors usually have to do themselves,” said publishing director, Jenny Bateman-Irish.

Aside from getting Arabs talking, Kaleem’s objective of publishing one novel per month is also meant to attain another goal.

“There’s a report that says Europeans read for 36 hours while Arabs only read for six minutes,” Ghobash said. “I intend to double that — to at least 12 minutes.”

There is of course no such report but Ghobash’s light-hearted approach may offer less gloomy Arab tales at least.

Reporting by Amran Abocar; Editing by Paul Casciato

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