As chairman of the Arabic Language Centre in Abu Dhabi (ALC) and secretary-general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA), I am not alone in believing that the diversity and quality of Arabic literature has the potential to widen literary horizons: recent reports show that Arabic and Arab-focused literature is thriving and the demand for it in international markets increases year on year.
In 2021, a study by Nielsen BookData analyzing the print sales of Arab-related books (U.K. sales of printed book titles identified by Nielsen BookData as having been published in Arabic countries, translated from or published in the Arabic language, or whose subject matter relates to the Arab World or Middle East) found that in 2019, print sales of Arabic titles in the U.K. and Ireland were worth £5.9m. This was an increase of 50% on the year before, and nearly double that of the figure recorded in 2015.
Another study undertaken in 2021 as a collaboration between Literature Across Frontiers, the ArabLit collective and iReMMO (Institut de recherche et d’études Méditerranée Moyen-Orient) found that 596 Arabic titles in translation were published in the U.K. between 2010 and 2020–more than double the number published in the previous decade. These studies clearly demonstrate that the U.K. publishing market is hugely receptive to Arabic literature and that efforts to provide it with a larger platform are paying dividends.
More initiatives and events
This latter study noted “an increase in the number of initiatives and events introducing Arabic literature” to Western audiences over the past decade. Providing a space for Arabic authors and publishers to foster literary exchange with other countries around the world is a central aim of the ALC and the SZBA, and it is pleasing to note that this kind of activity has coincided with a rise in popular demand for Arabic culture. In the U.K. and internationally, organizations and platforms such as the Arab Lit collective and the Arab British Centre have undertaken similar projects and continue to do so.
However, the loss at the end of 2022 of the Al Saqi Bookshop in London after 44 years, and of Banipal’s print magazine in its 25th year of publication, has shed light on the financial pressures that spaces for Arab-focused literature have faced in the past few years. As Europe’s largest specialist seller of Arabic and Middle Eastern books, the Al Saqi Bookshop provided a crucial communal space for Londoners, and visitors interested in Arabic literature and the history of the region. It was not only a bookstore but a significant meeting place for some of the figureheads of Arabic culture, many of whom appeared at Al Saqi’s events and talks over the years.
Championing Arabic literature
The bookshop’s publishing arm Dar Al Saqi was awarded the Sheikh Zayed Book Award for Publishing and Technology in 2016, recognizing its contribution to championing Arabic literature. The wide spectrum of publishing and thought which the organization had produced for both Arabic and English-speaking readers truly deserves to be celebrated.
Banipal magazine was also awarded the Publishing and Technology prize, in 2021. The English-language edition of Banipal provided many authors with their first exposure to Western readers and was thereby a valuable resource for the spread of Arabic literature worldwide and in enriching the Arabic literary dialogue.
Many laureates of the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards such as Maisoon Saqer, Iman Mersal, and Moncef Ouhaibi found their work translated in the pages of Banipal, and this exposure brought their work to the attention of readers who would otherwise have found it difficult to access. The next chapter of Banipal will see growth of the Spanish-language Banipal Revista, which was launched in 2020 using funds received from the Publishing and Technology prize and which seeks to promote Arabic literature into Spanish-speaking territories.
Although the closures of Banipal and Al Saqi Bookshop highlight the difficulties in maintaining a showcase for Arabic literature in the U.K., other schemes are afoot to meet the ongoing demand for Arabic literary spaces. The Maqam campaign, which seeks to provide a new home for Arabic literature and culture in London, is part of a continuing effort to maintain the presence of Arabic literary communities here.
Thankfully, I am not alone in testifying to the vital contribution of Arabic literature on the world stage and to efforts to increase global awareness of this rich and flourishing literary culture. The growth of sales in Arabic literature in the U.K. market, and the positive impact that these two much-loved institutions have had, demonstrate both the appetite for and the urgent need for more support for Arabic literature both in the U.K. and around the world.