The “Middle East / North African” literature club is an active part of the global GoodReads community with some 400 members. I asked one of the founders & leaders of the group, who calls herself “Nile Daughter” online, a few questions about this online book group.
ArabLit: What was the motivation to start this group? Who were you hoping would join?
Nile Daughter: First of all, I did not create the group, it was there in Goodreads for two years before I joined it. It was started by an American in order to gather reads from “the Middle East – North Africa ” (MENA) by native authors, and that was the definition of the group from the beginning. She left the forum, and when I joined there were about 60 members (multiple nationalities). There were no activities at all except for exchanging of some book recommendations.
I thought that was a good sign; I mean, these are people who do not belong to our region who are interested in reading our literature, trying to hear us and to understand us. I contacted the administration of the forum asking for a new moderator of the group and they assigned me. So with the cooperation of my friends that I appreciate much, we created a moderation team and moved on. We are three moderators “NG, Marieke, and I”: two Egyptians and one American. Now the group is trying to cover Arabic literature, also Turkish and Iranian, we even reached central Asia zone partially in our way.
ArabLit: What sort of reader(s) would you want to join the group? What do you think participants have gotten out of the group?
ND: We have just started the second year running this group and we have four hundred members now. We have Americans , Europeans, and Arabs, and that is the formula we hoped for. It is a group where members with different cultural backgrounds can read, discuss, and interact. After several reads, it was amazing how many non-native members indicated not only that they did not know much about us (socially, culturally or politically) , but that most of what they already knew was biased or superficial to some point. Besides they also have enjoyed our literature, for example: I Saw Ramallah affected a lot of readers, The Yacoubian Building was a shock, and Cities of Salt had the highest following rates in the group.
We are hoping that more diversified members will interact in the group and talk. Two-sided discussions (sometimes opposite ones) proved to be very productive, and the group created a positive communication area which is rare to locate in general—just to find different individuals exchanging points of view while reading the Middle East. That is the main benefit our participants get in our group.
ArabLit: Why an online reading group vs. one that’s in person?
ND: We never discussed how it would be as “in person group.” We could have never reached this number of various members or being internationally featured group if it was not online.
We have open threads for ever where members can join and post their comments at any time, we have official reads, corners for individual reads, and corners for music, movies and Oriental cuisines. We tried so much to achieve high level of flexibility and diversity that I wouldn’t imagine it possible in real life.
ArabLit: Has it been different from your expectations? In what way?
ND: Yes, It was different and there are several items that surprised me :
– I never expected the group would be that active: We are covering on average three books every 2 months, books are not always easy to find; yet members choose them through polls and do their best to find them or at least follow the discussions.
– At the first year, we were covering the region geographically, moving from a zone to anther exploring it. This year we had a different project: a historical tour. When Marieke suggested it, I was afraid members would not be interested as before, yet members followed, it seemed interesting to them to read history from the other side point of view and explore our heritage .
– I never expected that finding various options of Arabic books in several fields (mainly history) in English versions would be that difficult, that is why we had to read some books by non-native authors, which was tricky or a difficult task keeping in mind that our first read in the group was Orientalism by Edward Said.
ArabLit: Have you had any interaction with the authors of books you’ve read? Would you want to?
ND: Unfortunately no! because the authors of the books we read are not members in “Goodreads” and we have not tried to reach them by other methods, it was not an issue to think of at the beginning, we were only hoping that readers will increase in number and that discussions become richer among them . Now I think this would be a new addition to the group. But it is important to note that one of our policies is not to turn the group into a promotional device .
Some native authors already joined the group, also we have member authors who are not native , some of them lived in the region or just write about it from study or imagination – which is not the target of the group. Yet we made an exception that we read – and discussed with a non native author – an American memoir Fast Times in Palestine by Pamela J. Olson because it was requested by members after her interactions during “Arabic-Israeli conflict ” discussions.