By M. Lynx Qualey
Aisha Al-Kaabi worked her way through a lifetime’s worth of careers before she opened her own publishing house, IQRAni, in 2012. As a young woman, she helped her family work on their farm. She studied biology in the US, and has worked in the sciences, in television, at UNESCO and the UNDP, as a translator, as an author, and in copyright-management for the Dubai-based Kalima translation project.
But literature was always part of her destiny, she said. It was in her genes.
“I come from a family where my father was a poet and my sister is a novelist and my mom memorizes traditional poems,” Al-Kaabi said. “I love writing stories, and I love telling stories.”
This family tendency has only been heightened by living in the contemporary UAE, “which has been going through a lot of changes,” she said. “I have plenty of things to write about. I have a great heritage on my shoulders.”
Al-Kaabi started writing short stories when she was in the first year of studying biology, and published her first book in Sharjah through a government-sponsored cultural project. The experience wasn’t altogether satisfying, she said, because “we have to admit that they weren’t the perfect distributor for the book. I noticed that many people were coming to me, trying to find my book. Even me, I couldn’t get enough copies.”
After that, Al-Kaabi decided to publish abroad, in Arab countries that had more experience in the publishing industry. But, at the end of the day, “I thought that I could’ve done it myself.”
So, one day, Al-Kaabi was heading to work, and “I just changed my mind and I went to the media counsel. I asked them: How hard is it to start a publishing house?”
They handed her some paperwork, and she filled it out that same day. That evening, IQRAni was born.
The first book the house published was a debut by the Sudanese short-story writer Abdulrahman Saad. “In my publishing house, we are looking for new talents,” Al-Kaabi said. “My idea was to give a chance to the young blood.”
Al-Kaabi says that, in the past few years, a great deal has changed on the Emirati publishing scene. Ten years ago, people were not reading and writers were few. “If people are not reading, you can’t expect them to write.” But then something in the culture changed. “Nowadays, I can see for sure that there are many young people who are great readers and are passionate about books and writing.”
“Those young people, they’ve got what it takes to become famous writers.”
Since Al-Kaabi founded IQRAni, a half-dozen or more Emirati publishing houses have opened. Emiratis realized that young people were reading, Al-Kaabi said. But they didn’t want just any stories: They wanted to read stories that touched their lives. Several Emiratis opened publishing houses with the idea of taking advantage of this market space and turning a profit. But Al-Kaabi is interested in something else.
“I think publishing is a duty towards the new generation,” she said. “Towards the country.”
Many young readers, she said, are interested in shallow romantic stories or books written by social-media celebrities, and some of the new publishing houses are chasing after these trends. But she said writers and literature-lovers must enter the publishing business, too, in order to create a balance “between quality and business.”
For fellow Emiratis who might like to open a publishing business, “I would tell them: If you don’t care about literature, if you don’t care about the real knowledge of the society, then don’t open it. You have to have a mission. Try not to let young readers persuade you to publish shallow books. Just publish what you will think your family will be proud of.”
Yet this doesn’t mean, Al-Kaabi says, that publishers should avoid taboo subjects.
“For me, speaking about taboos is not something I reject. It’s actually a must. We must speak about taboos. But we should pick the right people to talk about them. For tackling serious issues, you have to find a serious writer.”
IQRAni has a committee of three authors who judge the submissions that come into the house. Once a work has been selected, the committee also gives editorial suggestions to the author. “Sometimes, they will change just the title, sometimes they will change a few paragraphs.” But “until now, we haven’t had a book that we’ve approved that has needed heavy editing.”
For authors who might like to submit their novels to IQRAni, Al-Kaabi says that she loves “people who make me think. I love writers who open my eyes to things I’ve been seeing all the time, but never thought of it that way.”
“Give me something unusual. Something that’s not repeated. I like originality.”
This article was made possible by the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair.