By Leonie Rau
In March 2022, kotobli was launched as a free, not-for-profit platform to “to fill gaps in representation and historical context in mainstream book discovery platforms“, as they write on their website. Here, ArabLit’s Leonie Rau talks to the kotobli team about the ideas behind the site, its value to readers, and their vision for its future.
ArabLit: At ArabLit, we were very excited to hear about the launch of kotobli in March 2022—congratulations! To start out, could you tell our readers a little about this initiative and the team behind it? How will it help users discover new books?
kotobli: kotobli is a book-discoverability platform (like Goodreads and The Story Graph) that specifically targets Arab readers and the Arab literary world, from publishers to authors, translators, and illustrators. For the most part, finding a good recommendation in English for general tropes and topics is achievable on the internet. However, finding good recommendations about Arabic-speaking countries, or SWANA more generally, is trickier; top search results usually bring up Western publishers or authors, and local book creators are underrepresented. Even more, discovering recent releases or republished backlists or out of print books in Arabic is much more difficult, mostly because there are no websites or databases that have these resources presented in a contextualized way for anyone interested in Arabic fiction or nonfiction.
Our website—which is still a work in progress—aims to do that. As a first step, readers interested in books from the Arab world or on the Arab world can discover books based on several features: discovering books according to an author’s gender or country of origin, finding books from a specific publisher or country (e.g. anyone interested in books by Iraqi authors or publishers can do so on our geography page), browsing through our book titles and thematic curations to find SWANA-specific subjects (e.g. Egyptian surrealism, prison literature). The experience of browsing through book shelves at a library, even if no specific book or topic comes to mind, is an experience we want to recreate while being on our website. We’re also making our algorithm unbiased to user-generated data (meaning, it does not push trendy titles, or books read by similar users to you, which is what other platforms do). Instead, we recommend books based on attributes specific to the books themselves; the algorithm will show you books with similar topics and genres you’ve read (and the occasionally odd recommendation to allow you to explore something out of your comfort zone). Our algorithm also prioritizes writers from the community the book is about, depending on what you’re looking for. For example, if you want to read about Palestine, books by Palestinian authors will be visible first, followed by other Arab authors, and then finally non-Arabs. This is not to say that an author’s identity automatically makes them a better writer or subject expert, but it does help us push forward books that would otherwise not have been made visible or public on other platforms.
Currently, we are a collective of four, we imagine and decide what kotobli will look like together. Omar Farhat and Mazen Saleh work on the tech side: they are building the website and database and implementing the recommendations algorithms. Yara El Murr and Salam Jabbour work on outreach, social media, and reading recommendations. We’ve been volunteering our time to see this passion project come to life and we just received our first grant from the Culture Resource to expand the team a little bit and refine some aspects of our project.
AL: How did you come up with the idea to start such a platform? What was the process like?
kotobli: kotobli was born out of frustration and unsatisfied curiosities. We each had wanted to read specific types of books in Arabic, but because we didn’t know what these books were (we only knew what type of reading experience we wanted), we couldn’t find what we were looking for. We’ve found that this is actually the case with many readers of Arabic: If you don’t know the title of the book you’re looking for, it’s nearly impossible to find a good recommendation from either Google or Goodreads (Book Twitter is a different story). The top search results are the most popular books that have been marketed by the Western Big 5 publishers. For example, if you want to read about the Lebanese civil war, your first results are Robert Fisk and Tom Friedman, two arguably orientalist Western men. The fact that many publishers in the Arab world have a shy internet presence doesn’t help—we’ve come across many publishers who don’t have websites, let alone a digital catalog. Without a comprehensive and indexed database of books from and about the region, recommendations can either become too redundant or too obscure. So we set out to build one.
Our process is still ongoing, and we aim to do it as collaboratively as possible. We’re currently inviting small publishers/magazines or publishers without a website or social media presence to add their book information to our database. In return, their page on kotobli can stand in as a free webpage and we are showing them how they can use a simple and safe content management system to showcase their books on our platform. We are also building this according to their needs: one publisher, which specializes in children’s literature, requested a multimedia component so they can add an audio excerpt of their books. This is (also!) still a work in progress but asking publishers what they need has given us many interesting ideas to work with! We’ve had enthusiastic feedback from this initiative so far since many local publishers don’t have the financial resources or technical knowledge to be online in this way. So far we have 7 publishers from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and Turkey and we are working on adding more with the support of the Culture 3.0 grant from Culture Resource.
AL: Quick aside: I love the name! How did you come up with it?
kotobli: The name went through several iterations and we finally landed on kotobli because it’s easy and catchy, and it’s never capitalized as a nod to its origin as an Arabic phrase. The idea behind it is that the book recommendation is personalized to each user. (Yara had initially wanted to use discokteb but we voted it out!)
AL: Could you tell us about any specific obstacles or problems you had to deal with while preparing to launch kotobli?
kotobli: Well, all the obstacles that prevented a formal or informal comprehensive database on Arabic books from emerging on the Internet are ones we continuously encounter and are trying to find a way around! These have to do with publishers having little resources and human resources to create a catalog of their own books, manage their websites, or promote and distribute their books. Many of the publishers we’ve reached out to are really run by one or two people. They’re on survival mode, and so a catalog to them is not going to solve their immediate problem—keeping the publishing house afloat.
In terms of curation, academic resources (e.g. library guides, academic texts, university libraries), public libraries, and second hand bookstores have been tremendously helpful. Through them we were able to come across books and writers that really deserve so much more attention than they’ve received, whether by physically finding a book that was out of print and unavailable in popular bookstores, or reading an insightful article about Arab book culture. Mostly though, it’s been the conversations we’ve had with people who’ve been in the business for years and who have stayed, even when it’s not lucrative, because of their passion and attachment to what they’re doing.
AL: Between Goodreads, YouTube, Book Twitter, and BookTok, the spaces for book recommendations can feel pretty overwhelming. And yet, at the same time, there’s a lot that isn’t being talked about. What gaps have you noticed that you’re hoping kotobli will fill?
kotobli: You’re right—many of these spaces aren’t only overwhelming; they operate based on the attention economy, so sometimes discussions and critiques remain at surface-level or recommendations are just too many to keep up with, it can feel useless. With that being said, however, one particular observation we’ve had is that many Arabic books only seem to get attention or become known, even to Arab readers, once they’ve been translated or won a prestigious award. One example is Adania Shibli’s Minor Detail. Perhaps we were oblivious to how widely read her book was by Arab readers long before it was longlisted for the International Booker Prize, but its translation seemed to garner the book more attention, not only internationally but regionally, when—just like many other equally deserving Arabic books—it should’ve been recognized and engaged with long before it was translated to English. And yet, even then, we still had trouble finding a physical copy of Minor Detail in Arabic or any of Shibli’s previously published books! This is one potential gap that we hope kotobli can address: that we showcase Arabic books, regardless of whether or not they’ve been translated to other languages, and that we highlight and engage with the interesting cultural work being done in Arab circles, even when the people behind them don’t have the same social media clout or the ability to distribute their books the way much larger publishers do.
AL: Some of the—very deserving—books you highlight are very hard to find in print, especially outside the SWANA region. Are there any plans to add resources to help users locate books they want to read in their respective locations, such as cooperations with bookstores or links to public libraries?
kotobli: So far, we’ve been adding purchase information for publishers who sign up on our platform. But the lack of digitization also applies to some small bookstores, not just publishers, so we still can’t track whether a bookstore has a specific book or not. Instead, we’re leaving it up to the publisher to decide whether they want potential buyers to contact them directly or the distribution company or bookstore they’re associated with. One of our future plans involves allowing users to see which small independent bookstores within their proximity are selling the books they want, but until then we’ve been connecting readers in Lebanon to the different bookstores and libraries in the country through TikTok and Instagram reels, and it’s been fun!
AL: You’re already offering three fantastic thematically focused collections: The Lebanese Civil War, Beyond Western Psychologies, and Queerness in the SWANA Region. Could you tell us how you came up with these themes and how you went about curating content for them?
kotobli: We wanted to start with themes that were either personally relevant to us or were inspired by some of our past work experience. We tried to strike a balance between choosing popular and more niche books, while also trying to create some sort of reading experience between the books themselves, if more than one book resonated with people. The books had to fit together, and they each had to be providing an additional element or perspective, without being too repetitive. We chose the Lebanese Civil War because we wanted to challenge some of the silence surrounding it in everyday life. The civil war has been, paradoxically, the subject of many books and disciplines, so we chose books that either documented or recollected the war in memoir, poetry, or fiction (like Nadia Tueini’s poetry or Patricia Sarrafian Ward’s The Bullet Collection) or used the civil war to understand how we got there and what changed or hasn’t change since then. Beyond Western Psychologies in retrospect seems like our most academically-oriented collection, although we did cut back on some of the scholarly work we initially had included. The idea was that we wanted to examine psychological notions or books that highlighted specific emotions (e.g. anxiety or fear) according to how people from the region had written about them. The psychological theories most people know have also tended to be Western-focused, and we wanted to look at how these theories either traveled to the Arab world or read about the specific histories or ideas that were introduced by Arab historians, psychologists, or novelists on the psyche. For our third collection, we firmly believe that there are so many queer writers in the SWANA region (and there are many we haven’t included yet), and instead of tokenizing queer Arab writers, we wanted to gather and present all of their work and show just how rich the books themselves are. It is also an effort in contributing to the archiving of our regions’ queer history, helping our communities see themselves represented in their own literature.
AL: Are there any other dawawin planned for the future? Could readers/users make suggestions for topics they’d be interested to explore?
kotobli: Yes—we’re actively looking for readers’ suggestions! We’ve had some interesting and varied requests over the past few months and we keep recommending books to anyone who requests a tailored list. We’ve had some feedback over the past few months that our dawawin as they exist now are not very user-friendly, so they will now exist as simplified lists. All our reading recommendations though will still be contextualized, and we love curating the discussions around some of the books we encounter as well (recommending podcast episodes, interviews, reviews).
AL: Finally: how can people support kotobli?
kotobli: If you are a publisher or author (even if you’re not publishing/writing about the SWANA region and especially if you’re an independent publisher!) and we haven’t reached out to you yet—please get in touch! We’d love to have as many publishers and authors on our site so that readers can discover a wide range of books, beyond what major publishers release. If you are a reader, have enjoyed our recommendations, and want to support more in-depth discussions about books and the literary world, you can follow us on our social media accounts (we don’t cross-post a lot), subscribe to our updates via our newsletter, or support us on kotobli’s patreon account.