Founder of New Publishing Project: Writing and Reading in Colloquial Arabic ‘Is Possible and Fun’

This year, Reem Makhoul launched a new publishing project called Ossass-Stories, with a focus on publishing children’s books in colloquial Arabics:

logofinal-3Her first book is called البِنْت اللِّي ضَيَّعَت خَيالْها (The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination) and was written in Shami Arabic, with an edition in Egyptian forthcoming. The house’s next book, Where Shall I Hide, is now available for pre-order.

Makhoul has talked about the impetus for her new publishing project being both personal and community oriented. The first book is set in New York City, and the books are meant to reach Arabophone children both in Arab countries and in the diaspora.

ArabLit and Makhoul exchanged emails about the new project.

I assume you were deliberate in calling them Ossas rather than Qusas.

When we started thinking about establishing a publishing house that specialises in books in colloquial Arabic, it was clear that everything we do would help promote the idea and vision of our project. Of course choosing an amiyyeh word as a name for our publishing house was deliberate, also writing our website in amiyyeh was deliberate. We’re trying to say that it’s possible to read in amiyyeh, and it should feel natural. When I’m interviewed in Arabic, I choose to speak in amiyyeh. We want to instil the idea that writing and reading in amiyyeh is possible and fun.

Do you have sales data on the first book? Are you distributing to libraries?

We’ve sold or distributed a few hundred copies of our very first book, the Shami edition of The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination. That’s nearly half our first print run, in less than a year, from a stone cold start. So we are very happy with that. We aren’t funded by some big publisher, my husband and I put up every penny ourselves to set up the company and get the books printed. So we have to proceed carefully – build demand, then print more.

It’s hard to know exactly how many have been sold because bookshops don’t give us a running count. We only hear back from them when they have sold out.

The first push was on social media, Facebook, Instagram and so on. And to colleges, outlets and libraries in New York, where we lived until recently.

Some bookshops took copies immediately upon hearing about the idea of books in colloquial Arabic – the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem was amazingly supportive right from the outset. Foyle’s of London said yes immediately, also Alef Bookstore and Al-Saqi Books in London, L’Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris and the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and other bookshops in Byblos, Quebec, Oslo, Washington D.C.

Because we are so new some other bookshops who had never heard about us were a little hesitant until they started to see a few stories about us in respectable media titles such as BBC Arabic, The Daily Star in Beirut, Mashallah, Refinery 29 and The Arab American News. Obviously, coverage like that helped, and also getting the seal of approval from perhaps the world’s leading bookstore, Foyles of London.

Then when the New York and Brooklyn public libraries agreed to stock it on their shelves – and I can’t tell you what a proud moment that was for us – that eased our approach to other libraries in the USA and Europe.

We are right now talking to libraries in other American cities, London and the distributors that specialize in supplying libraries worldwide.

storypages1314dragonAnd that’s the only way a small startup can do it. By working hard on all these fronts at the same time, you hope to slowly build a reputation. Social media, newspapers, broadcasters, colleges and word of mouth.

None of that happens without a good book. But a good book doesn’t make it happen automatically. It’s hard, hard work. You pester people. They are busy. They forget, or postpone. You remind them. They forget again. Then they see something about the book in a newspaper, or online, and it registers with them. They forget again. You follow up a bit later. This time they remember.

What is great is that we know that once we have got the book in front of people, the job is done. The book speaks for itself. We find that almost as soon as a wavering buyer tears open the envelope and actually sees that bright yellow hardback cover staring up at them from their desk, we get a ‘yes, please’ email the same day.

That’s because we got very lucky in finding an amazing illustrator, Fouad Mezher, in Beirut. Once people see Fouad’s work, our job is done. We just have to put Fouad’s drawings in front of them. And we’ve never actually met Fouad. In this digital era we checked each other out online, liked each other’s work, sent 1,000 emails, transmitting drafts of text and pictures back and forth over the Mediterranean, and ended up with a book, and another soon to come out.

One market that we didn’t really appreciate at first, but certainly do now, is students. We thought our customers were parents with children, but one day soon after publication we were cold-called by one college professor in New York who had seen our poster in a food coop in Brooklyn. He brought us in to read the book to his students, we sold some copies, and now we are going back to other American colleges for a reading tour in the spring.

After Egyptian, do you plan any other dialects? Or will you focus on Shami and Masri?

We would like to do a Gulf dialect, if there is a demand for it. One London bookshop has asked us for Shami, Egyptian, and Gulf. We got some requests for Gulf Arabic when we had a stall at an Arabic street festival in New York over the summer, and from some colleges that teach the Egyptian dialect. All of that is very encouraging. We will be able to gauge the demand for Gulf better once we have produced the Egyptian dialect edition of both books early next year.

We did a reading at a public library in New York, and people from Tunisia and Morocco were saying they’d like to read the book in their own dialects. Our aim is to publish our books in as many dialects as possible.

What are your current & future distribution plans? Will you get books in Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Egypt?

Our first book, the Shami edition of ‘The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination’, is already stocked in the London branch of the Egyptian bookshop chain Alef Bookstore that just opened (right next to the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes’s address 221B Baker Street). Alef are very interested in getting the Egyptian edition, which would obviously be more suited to their domestic branches. This is our top priority.

We already sell through Gibran’s Lebanon bookshop in Byblos, and we have sold some copies directly through social media in Beirut, they went very quickly. So we hope that more Lebanese bookstores hear about us, they will take the books.

We have a big stock in East Jerusalem’s Educational Bookshop. They say they are able to supply West Bank and Jordanian outlets who are interested. And, again, we are talking to them.

Have you done book events?

Yes, we have done readings in some schools, colleges and libraries in New York. We just moved to London, and are planning more here. When I visit the Middle East, I would love to spread the word there.

We also had a stall in an Arab festival in New York in the summer, and it was great success for us. I’m also planning a book tour in colleges and universities in the U.S. in the Spring.

How do you answer people who say “but if children don’t learn to read in fos7a (Modern Standard Arabic), we will lose our heritage!”?

storypages0102parkplayThis is a serious issue. We spent hours talking about this with friends and relatives in the Middle East and in the diaspora, including long consultations with some dear, trusted friends at the Educational Bookshop in East Jerusalem.

Obviously, in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt etc. children speak and hear local dialects of Arabic every day, they will obviously learn it quickly, and their parents will focus on the need to learn fussha. And so they should. That’s what my parents did. The demand for our books there is based on the fact that they sound more authentic – children in our books talk like children actually talk, not like lawyers and accountants. (I better be careful here, my Dad is a lawyer.)

But in the diaspora it is a totally different situation. Some are fluent, and that is great. I want children to be close to their roots and their culture, that’s why I started this project in the first place. But many children don’t hear Arabic at all, not at school, and sometimes not even at home.

We know many Arab parents who arrived in New York or London decades ago and didn’t teach their children Arabic. Sometimes it was because the children resisted, and it was easier just to switch to English at home. I know how tempting it is when I’m tired just to give up and let my daughter answer in English. Or sometimes it is because the parents actively wanted their children to assimilate, to ‘fit in,’ not to be the outsider. And now some of them regret that early decision, when they see their children go back home to the family home in Amman or Ramallah and find themselves unable to talk to their cousins and grandparents.

One mother who helped us out by reading her five-year-old daughter an early draft of The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination came out of the bedroom saying that she was glad we had listed the colors of the rainbow in the book, because it made her realize that she herself didn’t know all the colors in Arabic.

We want people to think about Ossass as a tool to learn Arabic, to get closer to our language and culture. Amiyyeh is the language of our daily life, we should be proud of it, not afraid of it.

So you aren’t preventing people from reading in Modern Standard Arabic.

Last night my husband was at a Bonfire Night, November 5th in London. He met a woman who studied Standard Arabic at university, to degree level. But when she went to the Middle East to work, she was completely unable to communicate, or to understand what people were saying to her, because she had absolutely zero exposure to how people actually speak outside textbooks. That is why it’s important for people, especially children, to learn the spoken as well as the formal register.

So, yes, it’s crucially important for people to learn fussha. But for many in the diaspora, amiyyeh is a gateway to that. And I think, I hope, I am helping to move them through that gate.

When I was growing up I couldn’t relate at all to animals or cartoon characters speaking formal Arabic to me in books or on television. More importantly, when I started to read to my own daughter a few years ago, I found it exhausting to read in fussha, instantly translate that in my head into amiyyeh, and read her that. I do simultaneous translation for a living as a journalist, and I found it exhausting and stilted. It broke the flow of the books, I could see my daughter losing interest. Many people tell me they just don’t bother, they try a few books, give up and don’t go back to it. I don’t want people to give up. I want children to grow up comfortable with books and reading in formal and spoken Arabic.

Do you ever see doing “bridge” books that help children get from colloquial to fos7a?

We have considered doing teaching aids – building blocks and so forth. But this is probably something to be done with apps and electronic devices, which can provide instant translations in multiple dialects for the same object.

Where do you see your project going?/ How are the digital platform ideas going?

zadawillreturncropFor me, Ossass is not only about stories, it’s about creating a culture of reading amiyyeh both for fun and for learning. I want our books to be available in as many libraries and bookshops worldwide as possible.

This Sheherazade series is, we think, just one strand of what we’re planning to do. The template wouldn’t fit older kids, so naturally we’d write books more age appropriate for that group, like Enid Blyton did with different series such as Noddy, The Famous Five, and Secret Seven. All aimed at different age groups.

What I’d really like to do is establish the idea of authentic, natural sounding Arabic so well that we can start translating for movie companies, and classical books and stories into amiyyeh.

I would like to see the children’s movie ‘Frozen’ with amiyyeh subtitles, not a young Norwegian princess expressing herself like an ageing opera singer. (Editor’s note: More on that debate here.)

After we’ve published both our books in two dialects, we will bring out a book for younger kids to teach them counting, and the alphabet. Our focus will then move into web-based and digital platforms. We want to create and design tools that help teach the different dialects of Arabic through audio books, games and different apps. But the immediate priority is establishing a solid reputation for our core print products.

What are your favorite children’s books?

We didn’t have children’s books as such. As a child I used to read books in Arabic that were translated from English, like The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and Helen Keller, not exactly the children’s books we’re used to reading today, but I enjoyed them. When I started reading stories to my daughter we were living in New York, and I was surrounded by amazing children’s literature in English, but there wasn’t much choice in Arabic (the ones I found were translated, and written in fussha).

I love Oliver Jeffers’ books very much. My favourite is How to Catch a Star. I also like Edward Hemingway’s Bad Apple. I love books that have a big message that is presented in a simple way, and takes the child several readings to figure out. But I also love reading Dr. Seuss’s books, or Ian Falconer’s Olivia books, I think they’re wonderful and fun. Soon I will start reading the stories of 1001 Nights with my daughter Sheherazade.