interview with Sheikha Bodour, publisher and daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah
In the middle of the buzz of Sharjah’s 31st International Book Fair which opened its doors from the 7th to the 17th of November at the Emirate state’s Expo Center, Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi, tells how her passion for books began. With her sparkling eyes, enjoying a lugaimat and a cup of tea, the 35 year old beautiful entrepreneur, never gets tired of witnessing how the stories she publishes delight her young audience. Her publishing house, Kalimat, celebrates its fifth anniversary this year and the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) which she presides over has just become a member of the International Publishers Association (IPA). INTERVIEW.
How did you come up with the idea of promoting children books in the UAE?
It began seven years ago. My daughter was three years old at the time and I started to read her stories and bedtime stories. But she could feel I was lacking enthusiasm towards these books. And as I did not like them, she did not like them either. I started asking myself where are the Emirati books on our culture, our stories, our people, our traditions. And when I turned to people around me, asking other mothers how they felt about it, I realized everybody had the same feeling and the same frustration. So I started with several books to see how it would go from there. This is how it all started. This was in 2007. We started with five books at Kalimat and it was an immediate success! Everybody said we really spotted a market that was sleeping for a long time. We needed these stories to come out. And today we have 100 books and many Emirati writers and illustrators.
Do you only publish in Arabic?
Yes, since the beginning. We only publish in Arabic. Just a few books are translated but 90% of our books are local. The reason why we buy some of them is to interact with other publishers, develop our network that open doors for our local writers. For instance the Young Adult market was not very developed so we decided to buy and translate to encourage our writers and show them that there is a market for this kind of books. And now we do have writers for this Young Adults market in the UAE. This is a great achievement.
How do the children welcome the books? This is something you must experience through the eyes of your daughter?
I have three children now and they have been growing up with Kalimat and you can see a change in our culture of reading as well. Before you had to learn something from a story, it had to be educational and now it’s more about fun, about enjoying the story and having pleasure reading the story rather than learning something out of it. I think this emphasis makes children love books even if they don’t learn anything from them. It creates a bond with the book. This is the beginning of many new initiatives. New writers are coming up as well and great illustrators.
It gives them the love of reading?
We established the UAE Board on Books for Young People (UAE BBY). I am the President of the UAE BBY here. It is an organization that brings together writers and people in general interested in children’s book. We have many workshops for librarians, illustrators and writers. We have ambassadors. Salha Ghabesh (see the photo story on Salha Ghabesh, and her last book "Dana’s journey") is one of the year’s UAE BBY’s ambassadors. They are our UAE treasures. They are writers and illustrators who we take abroad to international conferences and we involve them in the local communities as well to do readings and promote the culture of reading.
You must have witnessed a great change in terms of audience since the book fair started 31st years ago?
I have grown up with this book fair. I will turn 35 next month and I have come here since I was three years old. I have been coming to the book fair every year. I’ve never missed it since I have been three years old. It used to be in a tent. And look now, it is in a huge hall! It’s really grown and it’s become like a national treasure really. People think of Sharjah and the book fair. So it is really something we are proud of.
When you think about Sharjah when you were a little girl and the Emirate as it is today, what comes to your mind?
For me it’s still familiar. And this is very important. You know when you leave a country and you come back and do not recognize it? You don’t feel connected to the country. For me Sharjah is always very familiar to myself because a lot of things are very cultural. You see the buildings, the monuments, and the architecture. You feel that you are in the Middle East.
You have studied anthropology and archaeology in Cambridge and UCL haven’t you? What did you feel being so far from Sharjah and the UAE?
It was very difficult because I remember going to university and thinking what am I going to study. I did not want to study science. Then I thought I love people and to know about different cultures and I chose anthropology.
(She pauses to offer and taste a lugaimat, one of these typical local sweet dumplings dotted with sesame seeds, which goes so well with the slight bitterness of tea).
We have a book about lugaimat actually. We are having the launch of the book on the 13th of November. It’s called «When the Camels Craved Dumplings». The writer is Emirati and she will be doing an event where we will be serving lugaimat.
Going back to my arrival in Cambridge, it was a culture shock. I was eighteen and at the time it was not like that. We weren’t so cosmopolitan. We did not have lot of people coming here. I had to adapt to a new situation, new setting, a new country, and new people. But it was the best experience of my life. It shaped me as a person, defined who I was. It also gave me a perspective on who I was as an Emirati. You meet people from all over the world, from different cultures.
The books you publish focus on Emirati culture and identity?
Yes because if you think about it, our country is very young and we are very open to many nationalities and many other countries. Children who are growing up here are very influenced by other cultures which is great. It makes them very open minded and educated. But the local identity also needs to be strong. For a child to have self-esteem and a good sense of himself, it is important to know who he is and where he comes from. Through our stories we can make them proud of who they are and where they come from. They can travel everywhere around the world and meet people but they know who they are inside.
Do they react differently when they listen to a traditional local story?
Yes when you see yourself in a story you can associate with the character, the setting, the words, a lot of things. This is important.
Do you write yourself?
I do, a little, but I have not published anything because you are more critical of yourself and I am very critical of everything I write. But hopefully next year some of my work will be published.
Your father, His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, Member of the Supreme Council and Ruler of Sharjah also writes?
Yes he is a poet, a historian and a play writer as well.
He read you stories as a child?
We grew up with books all around our house. He told us stories of his childhood all the time for years and years and we begged him to write them down because these stories would be lost otherwise. So we were the ones who pushed him to write them and now he’s written so many books. Every year now it’s a new book. These personal stories are very important as well. They shape us when growing up. He has a very different and interesting life.
Who are you favourite writers?
I love the Persian poet Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī.
For more info: Kalimat’s website