A Look at 5 Emirati Publishers: Summer Break Edition

By Eman AlYousuf 

It’s August, when heat and humidity are at their glorious peak and nothing much is happening in the literary scene here in the UAE. Summer has always been known as the quiet season, especially for cultural and arts events.

Yet in the last decade, the United Arab Emirates has played a key role in the Arab literary scene, transforming the way we see and deal with literature, publishing, the book industry, and the creative economy.

This includes new and re-launched book fairs in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi, new literature prizes, including the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction, the Emirates Airlines LitFest, as well as many new museums, galleries, and art festivals. Yet while these Emirati initiatives have launched a huge wave of change in the Arabic-language publishing industry, in an exceptionally short time, local Emirati publishing houses are still young, with the industry having started not more than twenty years ago.

Although to do justice to the Emirati publishing industry we would need to discuss both The Emirates Reprographic Rights Management Association (erra.org.ae) and Emirates Publishers’ Association (epa.org.ae), I’m going to start from a simpler lens: the season we’re in.

This time of year, there are no book fairs and very few events to mark on the cultural calendar. Those that do exist are generally summer camps for kids and young adults or a few indoor workshops that are also meant to be light and entertaining.

So, what do Emirati publishers do all summer long? How do they spend their time between May and September, after which things start moving again and they’ll be expected to have new books n route to publication, if not already in print, all nicely prepared and designed with lovely covers to seduce the masses?

For those interested in a glimpse of the Emirati publishing landscape, this is the right time to get started. If you’re interested in a specific house, you can try googling them or scrolling their socials for books they have published. Here, we’ll take a chronological look at five Emirati publishing houses—oldest to newest—that are making their mark in the UAE and the region. But readers should note that even the oldest publishing houses on the list have only been around since the early 2010s, as the publishing movement in the United Arab Emirates started much later than in other countries in the region. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the country itself was established in 1971 and that, in the twentieth century, Emirati authors published their works in Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon. Emirati authors had a few local publishing options, such as the Emirates Writers Union, but these reached far smaller audiences than the publishing houses launched in the last fifteen years.

Kuttab Publishing, Bookstore, and Cafe

Jamal AlShehhi is publisher and CEO of Kuttab Publishing, which literally means “writers.” Kuttab opened in 2010 with a publishing house and a bookstore named “Kuttab café” which has several branches, although most well-known and visited are Kuttab café in Uptown Mirdif in Dubai and the one in Al Qasba in Al Sharjah.

Kuttab is one of the very first publishing houses to start up in the UAE and has supported and published many Emirati writers and poets who have since found wide audiences. Kuttab café has hosted—and continues to host—many cultural events, book launches, signings, and school learning activities. It has a very cozy atmosphere and delicious pastries.

The publishing house has brought out some 400 books of different genres and they are currently at work digitizing their publications. They are also known for creating the first Emirati book club that uses augmented reality, which launched in 2022.

One of the things that made Kuttab Publishing what it is now is that they introduced the concept of a book industry to the UAE. In the decades before Kuttab, publishing in the UAE was infused with romanticism; readers and publishers didn’t see books as part of an industry, but solely as artistic works. It was Kuttab that pushed the Emirati publishing industry to develop as an industry.

The Kuttab cafe:

Al Hudhud Publishing

Yusur AlAbbychi, COO of Al Hudhud Publishing and Distribution takes us through the inspiring journey of one of the first and most successful children’s publishing houses in the UAE. She tells us that they started in 2011, which also makes them one of the oldest Emirati publishing houses.

Al Hudhud targets children and young adult readers, although they have also published a few poetry collections for adults. Thus far, they have published around 390 books and other publications, and they work with the Ministry of Education as well as other cultural and governmental entities in the UAE on initiatives that target encouraging the love of the written word among children and young adults and developing the quality and diversity of Arabic language content in libraries, bookstores, and schools. In addition to publishing work written originally in Arabic, they also translate popular series for children from English and Turkish.

In 2022, they published a collection written by children and young adults across the UAE. The book illustrates these children’s vision of the future and is interesting not only to other kids, but also to educators, parents, and adults, giving us an idea of how this generation sees the future of cities and how they believe issues such as climate, sustainability, education, and health will change in the next 50 years.

Al Hudhud publishing house is also known for designing their books to engage all a child’s senses, and they also introduce sign language and Braille to young readers.

An illustrative work from Al Hudhud:

Rewayat Publishing

Ahmed Al Ali, Editor-in-Chief of Rewayat, said that the publishing house was launched in 2015 and that they have published more than 100 titles.

Rewayat started out by publishing several translated books, focusing on titles and authors they believed were important and had not yet been translated and published for and introduced to Arabic-language readers.

Rewayat is known for giving extra attention to both the quality of translation and the books’ packaging, from the quality of printed paper to the cover design. The house focuses on stories that answer deep questions as well as highlighting existential and major issues.

Rewayat is a publishing house for works of fiction translated into Arabic as well as prose and poetry originally written in Arabic, and it was founded under the umbrella of Kalimat Publishing, itself founded by Her Highness Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qassimi.

Ahmed Al Ali said: “We at Rewayat work hard and target building trust in with Emirati authors, showing them that, today, the Emirati publishing industry is no different in its efforts and goals and outcomes than in the rest of the Arab world. This, we realize, needs great deal of work and planning in addition to well-managed efforts, which start with building our reputation and track record with international publishers as well as literary agents and not to restrict that to only the number of books published and pushed into the market annually, which is also important at the end of the day. At Rewayat, we want to lead and represent Arab authors well internationally, and that is something we have been working on since day one.”

Sample titles from Rewayat:

Al Fulk Translation and Publishing

Dr. Alyazia Khalifa, founder of AlFulk Translation and Publishing, tells us that the reason she started Al Fulk Translation and Publishing was to enrich the landscape of Arabic children’s content, especially translations of internationally celebrated publications and those that tackle new issues that children face today.

Al Fulk Translation and Publishing started in 2015 and, thus far, they have published around 50 books. They were also the first Emirati publishing house to publish wordless books, starting in 2016.

One unique point about Al Fulk is that they have translated children’s books from languages that Arabs don’t usually translate from, such as Islandic, Danish, Spanish, and more; they are also known for covering topics that aren’t tackled in children’s books, and their books are among the best when it comes to quality of printing, illustrations, and cover design.

Dr. Alyaziyah noted one particular challenge that faces many—if not all—Arab publishers, which is regional distribution. She expressed frustration with the struggle between distributors and publishers who want to find audiences across borders, saying that she hopes this problem can one day get solved and settled.

Al Fulk also aims to produce educational tools and materials for use in homes and classrooms. They also are concerned with leading and guiding children to love and excel in Arabic. They also have been working hard on a cultural exchange program with Russia in support of Arabic-language content.

Illustrative title from Al Fulk:

Ghaf Publishing and Bookstore

Afra Mahmood, co-founder of Ghaf Publishing and Bookstore, says that the publishing house—which was started by three Emirati women—launched during the 2021 Sharjah Book Fair and that they have thus far published 35 books. Ghaf is named after the Emirates’ national tree, the Prosopis cineraria, which has long been used in medicine, nutrition, and at tribal meetings and gatherings. Ghaf trees are known for having their roots connected very deep beneath the desert sand dunes, which is how ghaf trees support each other with water via their roots. It’s thus rare to see a ghaf tree all alone, or dead.

Similarly, the vision of Ghaf Publishing and Bookstore is to nourish and support Emirati heritage and literature. Among its published works are poetry collections by the well-known Emirati poet Mohammed Khalifa bin Hadhir.

They also promote Emirati authors and cultural figures through their social-media channels and their online bookshop through initiatives such as author or artist of the month, as well as by printing bookmarks, postcards, and other items with famous quotes from Emirati literary figures. Also, Ghaf aims to support the wider community by growing a tree for each book they print.

Illustrative work from Ghaf:

Eman AlYousuf is an award-winning Emirati author with a degree in cultural diplomacy and a Master’s in knowledge management.  She is the first Emirati to be chosen for the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2018 and won a Fulbright scholarship to teach Arabic to university students in 2020-21. She has published seven books: three novels, three collections of short stories, and a book on Emirati women writers. She started a podcast about cultural diplomacy called “Seven” and wrote the script of a feminist Emirati short film, “Ghafa,” which was screened in Dubai Film Festival in 2017. She is now the head of Arabic program for the Emirates Airlines Festival of Literature.