Arab Women of Words: Conversation With 9 Industry Leaders

By Essayed Taha

For this year’s Women in Translation Month, we wanted to introduce readers to a few of the women in key roles across the Arab publishing landscape. Although this month is typically focused on women writers, we wanted to also spotlight a diverse group of women who have made invaluable contributions to the world of books and reading.

While some are also authors, all of the nine women featured below have inhabited a variety of roles, from editors to publishers to booksellers to festival organizers and more. These nine women have spent their careers shaping both literature and the way readers access and experience it.

We asked each to respond to two questions:

1. What significant changes have you witnessed in local and regional bookselling and publishing? How have you adapted or challenged these changes?

2. What brings you joy and fuels your passion for the book world? 

Their responses give us a glimpse into both their personal journeys and the industry.

Palestinian poet, journalist, and founder of Shahrur, Asmaa Azaizeh talks about the challenges presented by the Israeli occupation & how she resists: “This senseless blockade has led to a deprivation of books, leaving us feeling less than fully human. However, we must not succumb to this injustice.”

READ: Asmaa Azaizeh: ‘A Physical Disconnect from the Arab Literary World’

Journalist, documentary filmmaker, and the cofounder of Kotobli Yara el Murr talks about navigating the digital worlds of bookselling and publishing. “We’ve also noticed that the demand on e-books has been increasing. Some platforms already exist that offer either subscriptions or purchasing options for e-books, but we have found that they can be a bit exploitative of the labor of writers.”

READ: Yara el Murr: Helping Publishers Catch Up with Technology

Literary agent Yasmina Jraissati talks about what keeps her going: “[I]t’s the connection a book creates between authors and readers, or more generally between people: they may not know each other, they may, and in most cases, never meet. Yet, they read the same book, they get transported by the same moments in the story, they empathize, hate, or fall in love with the same characters.”

READ: Yasmina Jraissati: On the Intimacy of Sharing Books

Author and founder of Al Salwa Books, Taghreed Najjar talks about the changes in publishing books for young readers: “Many schools have also come to realize that reading for fun in Arabic is important for the learning process. This has brought more demand for children’s books. When book sales improve, then more good books can be published.”

READ: Taghreed Najjar: A Growing Awareness of the Importance of Literature for Young Readers

Renad Qubbaj has been General Director of the pioneering Palestinian publishing house Tamer Institute for Community Education since 2006. She talks about both the positive and negative changes to attitudes about children’s literature: “[W]e face challenges in the region, as there is resistance against unfamiliar books perceived as a threat to traditional conservative culture.”

READ: Renad Qubbaj: ‘With Utmost Respect for the Child’s Intellect’

Maha Maamoun is co-founder of the independent publishing initiative “Kayfa ta” and talks about small and independent publishing projects: ““What is most interesting to me is the rise in independent publishing initiatives – that is, publishing projects originating outside the mainstream publishing industries.”

READ: Maha Maamoun: On the Rise of Independent Publishing Initiatives

Publisher, author, and literary critic Kenza Sefrioui talks about the challenges and changes on the Moroccan publishing landscape: “What characterizes the Moroccan book market is that it still isn’t the center of gravity for Moroccan publishing: most writers who think they have talent take their chance in more structured circuits, from which they hope for better commercial and symbolic recognition.”

READ: Kenza Sefrioui: On the Moroccan Book Market

Nadine Chehade, Vice-President of Beyt El Kottab, a Beirut-based non-profit organization aimed at discussing contemporary topics through literature, on the challenges of “a fragmented industry, an impoverished majority who has limited funds to purchase paper books, the collapse of readership in Syria and Iraq,” and more.

READ: Nadine Chehade: On the Displacement of the Beirut-Cairo-Bagdad Axis of Reading, Writing, and Publishing

Eman Hylooz, founder of the Abjjad Arabic digital reading platform, talks about the changes in publishing: “These changes include the rise of digital reading platforms, self-publishing opportunities, the popularity of ebooks and audiobooks, and the use of data and analytics.”

READ: Eman Hylooz: On Digital Technologies and Shifting Reader Preferences