Interview Roger Tagholm
Women have an important role to play in the development of the Arab world and in the growth of its publishing industry, according to Sheikha Bodour, founder of the Emirates Publishers Association (EPA) and of the children’s publishing house Kalimat. She is the daughter of the Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Dr Sheikh Sultan Bin Mohammad al Qasimi, and shares her father’s passion for books and their ability to improve lives.
As part of her participation in the Abu Dhabi Book Fair, she spoke to the fair’s Show Daily — reprinted here with their permission — in a wide-ranging interview in which she looked ahead to the Arab Publishers Conference (APC) which will take place in the UAE for the first time in November, just ahead of the Sharjah International Book Fair.
You are the first Arab woman to serve on the International Publishers Association’s executive committee. How does this make you feel?
My appointment reflects the growing role that women are playing in the development of the Arab world, including the UAE. It is both a great honor and a great responsibility. It is also an opportunity to represent the interests of Arab publishers, and specifically publishers from the Gulf, in the international arena.
I believe strongly in the importance of equipping women to be active contributors to the development process and I am very proud of the support that the UAE government is giving to women who want to take on leadership roles. I also hope that my selection will inspire the women of the UAE and the region to pursue their dreams and take on more responsibility in building the future of this region.
What are you most proud of achieving at the EPA?
We are very excited about the forthcoming Arab Publishers Conference — to bring it to the UAE is a great achievement and underscores the leading role the EPA is taking in the region.
How many members of the EPA are there? Has it grown?
EPA membership continues to grow as the UAE’s publishing sector expands. Currently, there are 100 members and we are looking forward to welcoming new members in the future. It is also important to note that membership is reserved for private companies.
Which EPA initiatives particularly please you? You have said that you want to encourage people to think of publishing as a career. Have you been successful?
The UAE’s publishing sector is definitely gaining traction, which means that there are a lot of opportunities for creative individuals to become involved. But there is still a real lack in terms of finding platforms through which to gain publishing related skills and know-how. For instance, although tertiary study programs in media are readily available at the UAE’s leading academic institutions, publishing per se is not a focal point of these courses — if it is included in the program at all.
To bridge this gap and give new publishers the opportunity to learn and grow, EPA launched Unshor [from the Arabic for “circulation”] — a one-year mentoring program for Emirates publishers aimed at boosting their professional skills and expanding their experience.
What are your thoughts on literacy in the region?
Literacy and education are two issues that have been high on the UAE’s priority from the very beginning, and I am very proud to say that the Emirates’ efforts to increase literacy rates have been very successful. In 1975, the rate of adult literacy in the UAE was 54% among men and 31% among women. Today, the rates for both men and women are nearly 90%.
But we need more than just basic literacy, if we want to build a real knowledge-based society; we need people who are readers. The sad fact is that simply equipping people with the ability to read is not enough. A 2013 report commissioned by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, showed that 42% of the students in the Arab world read only once a week or less, and, just as worryingly in a cultural context, that only 64% of those who do read do so in standard Arabic. Fortunately there are a number of initiatives that are working to foster reading culture in the UAE.
In Sharjah, for instance, we have Knowledge without Borders, a program that provides Emirati families with an in-home core library of 50 books, and the UAEBBY [UAE Board on Books for Young People] is also hard at work to encourage children to become life-long readers.
What do you think are the big issues facing publishers globally?
One of the major issues is that publishing has become a very intricate balancing act, especially in terms of progress versus long-term stability. Ultimately a publisher is still an economic entity. It needs to be financially successful to remain viable. This means that every publisher needs to walk that thin line between trying to keep up with each new development, while still maintaining a solid and secure business structure.
Looking ahead to the Arab Publishers Conference in Sharjah, what are the issues facing Arab publishers?
The theme of this year’s Arab Publishers Conference is “The Publishing Industry: Horizons and Challenges of the Digital Age.” The way we interact with information has changed radically — and with it the way that publishing works. During the conference we will look at the role of libraries and educational publishing — especially in terms of the increased use of technology in the classroom.
Intellectual property, copyright protection, and piracy are also major issues. At the moment, the UAE’s copyright legislation is on a par with any other leading nation in the world, but the real challenge lies in the lack of a standard approach to copyright across the region, which makes enforcement very difficult. If we want the publishing sector to thrive, we need to protect the work of its professionals. Publishers from the region still tend to be a little unsure about how to use digital platforms and are concerned about their safety
Do you have any thoughts on the damage being done to precious cultural artifacts, including books, in the troubles in Syria and Iraq?
The events in Syria and Iraq sadden me deeply, not only because their perpetrators are projecting a decidedly skewed view of Islam, one that has nothing to do with its true meaning, but also because any time heritage is destroyed it is a tragedy. Our past, both good and bad, is the foundation on which we build our future. It offers us inspiration and the chance to learn from our predecessors’ mistakes and must be protected.
We need to take precautionary measures to protect cultural heritage, and technology has a role to play in this process. These events have made it clear how imperative it is to create digital archives of precious artifacts, books, and other materials. Disasters, man-made or otherwise, can happen, but that does not mean that we have to lose our heritage. Modern technology has the ability to preserve, if not the actual object, at the very least a representation of it — which means that even if a book or a statue is destroyed, we do not have to lose its meaning and symbolism.
Finally, what was the last book by your bedside?
The Architecture’s Apprentice by Elif Shafak.