Ten years ago, many publishing professionals would likely have struggled to find Sharjah on a map. But today, the tiny emirate next to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates is home to a blossoming publishing scene—including the Sharjah International Book Fair, now among the top professional book events in the world—and has become a nexus for publishing in the region. The new Sharjah Publishing City, a 200,000-sq.-ft. facility that will offer administrative and logistical support for those looking to publish, print, and distribute books throughout the region, is slated to open in November. Rental space in the facility is nearly sold out, said Ahmed Al Ameri, chairman of the Sharjah Book Authority.
While Al Ameri has been the public face of the Sharjah Book Authority, Sheika Bodour Al Qasimi has been Sharjah’s unofficial publishing ambassador. The sheika has been a regular fixture at book fairs around the world for the past decade, representing Kalimat, the Arabic-language children’s publishing house she founded in 2007.
The inspiration for the publishing house came from her daughter. “I started reading to my daughter when she was only a few months old,” Bodour said. “But I soon learned that the bookshops in the United Arab Emirates and the region did not offer Arabic books that would capture the imagination of a 21st-century child. This is what led me to found the publishing house. It was my hope that we would pioneer children’s Arabic books in a way that would appeal to those Arabic children, make them look forward to visit bookshops again, and—as a consequence—instill a love of reading.”
Since its launch, Kalimat has gone on to publish 175 books, including a Bologna Ragazzi Award winner: Lisanak Hisanak (Tongue Twisters), by Fatima Sharafeddine, the first Arabic-language book to win the Bologna prize.
All along, Kalimat has benefited from good timing. When it launched, there was growing awareness throughout the Gulf region and the rest of the world of the need to provide Arabic-language readers with a wider and more engaging array of reading materials. And the publisher has since expanded, spinning off several subsidiaries, including Horouf, which produces digital and print educational tools in Arabic; Rewayat, a YA imprint; and Maktaba, a bookstore and café in Sharjah. More recently, the house has been able to capitalize on growing interest in Arabic literature abroad and has sold rights to publishers in the U.K., including Bloomsbury, Orion, and Quarto, as well as to Gallimard in France.
Professional development has been a top priority for Bodour, who took the lead in developing the Emirates Publishers Association and getting it admitted to the International Publishers Association, of which she later was elected to the executive committee. From there, she supported and defended the controversial elevation of the nearby Saudi Publishers Association to full voting membership in the IPA in 2015. She is also a member of the IPA’s influential Freedom to Publish committee.
Reflecting on her publishing journey these past 10 years, Bodour said, “As a proud Arab, I am always keen to have an Arab voice in the world of children’s books that speaks for Arab culture and civilization in a modern way, and the books that Kalimat has been publishing are a testament to that.”
She added that the Arab world has been changing rapidly over the past several decades, and books offer a strong medium for cultural exchange, dialogue, and understanding. “Once again, standing on the horizon of hope, after building Kalimat from scratch, I can say this much with certainty: books are powerful and are an infinite source for hope, inspiration and motivation, which is, practically speaking, all that a child needs to change his or her outlook on life.”