Editor’s note: At the bottom, we have more information on how to start your own Arabic-literature book club, or how to incorporate Arabic literature (in translation) into an existing club.
Below, Ghada Kanafani Elturk, who started up an Arabic book club at the library where she works in Boulder, Colo.—probably the first of its kind in the U.S.—was kind enough to share her story with ArabLit. We hope that her story might inspire other libraries, community centers, or other interested groups to form their own Arabic Book clubs (in English).
By Ghada Kanafani Elturk, outreach librarian with Boulder Public library
Growing up, I found a home in literature, art and music. Wherever war and oppression took me, I continued to search for this home even in unusual places and circumstances.
My sister, who sponsored me to move with my family into the USA, had the biggest smile on her face when she announced to me that she’d be taking me to the most important place in the USA. It was the first week I was in the country. Although she’s eight years younger, she knew me very well; this was indeed a place I would enjoy visiting. The experience emphasized for me how impressionable children are and how they retain ideas and perspectives about others “under our radars.” Sana took me to Aurora Public Library here in Colorado. From that time on, public libraries were the fist place I’d visit when I traveled in the USA and around the world. To me, they are the pulse of any community.
Since then, I became a regular volunteer in libraries wherever I lived. And when I had limited time, like any other single parent, I volunteered in my daughters’ school libraries.
In 1987, I lived in Anaheim Hills, California, and there I was an active member of The Friends of the Library. In 1988, Naguib Mahfouz received the Nobel Prize for literature and the Friends group asked me if I was familiar with him and his work. I was, so they asked me to talk about him and about the significance of the recognition.
I chose his book, “Miramar,” since it was the only one I could put my hands on in translation in the English language. In a room overflowing with bodies of an equal mixed gender and eyes fixed on me in concentration and admiration, I started slowly so people could get used to my accent. Then I picked up speed when I felt some ease in the eyes and the body language, although some faces were still struggling. I kept thinking, “It’s me,” and I tried to keep a slower pace and avoid words with Rs since people here in the USA comment on the R and I did not want another distraction. A third of the way through my talk, a hand of a strained face rose carefully and shyly and the person said “So you mean that an independent woman living without her family is a bad thing?”
The first gut thought that came to mind was, “Where do I start?”
I began with some “soul searching.” After that experience, the idea of a book club came to mind. Many factors play roles in creating book clubs as a place for literary exchange. But in my case, belonging to a new community was one factor, as well as belonging based on understanding, equality and equity. To best understand a new place and culture and have people who lived here before me understand me, my identity, and my culture, the solution seemed to lie in art: literature. I wanted to honor people’s need to understand something new, someone with whom they’re not familiar and their need to learn from people like themselves on a human level. I thought to avoid the “experts” who I believe end up in most cases contributing to stereotypes.
I vowed to give authors and their novels the respect and attention due as part of the human literary experience rather than the “ethnic” box. I planned for fair and equitable use of a public space for discussion. All these were factors, and still are, in creating and sustaining the Arabic book club. When I moved to Boulder in 1993, I immediately became part of the public library system as a patron and a member of the larger community. I also volunteered in the school system that was seeking to add diversity, equity, and accountability to its of efforts. The library director at that time asked if I and another staff member, an immigrant from Iran, would do Arabic and Farsi language classes for the community. These two different languages are written in the same alphabet and very similar script. I found it a great idea and opportunity not only to introduce the community at large to something different, but also to create awareness about the differences and similarities between cultures. Later, I modeled this approach when I created and offered similar programs about various Latin American countries.
The classes were very well received and attended. When the Iranian staff member moved away, I was asked to do more, so I offered a series of “learning about Arab culture through language,” and those were also very successful classes that included language, literature, music, folk songs, cinema, etc. When I became a library staff member later, I was hired to create a new Outreach department for the library. Finally then, in October of 1996, I asked permission to do an Arabic literature discussion group. To my knowledge, it was the first of its kind in North America. Since then, the group has been meeting. The format mostly is reading a book and discussing it. The meetings are open to the public, even for people who haven’t read the book.
The focus is novels, but sometime we include non-fiction, especially if the need for it is expressed by a member of the group. Other times we include poetry, short stories, essays, feature films or documentaries. On rare occasions, we were able to have an author come to our discussion or have a special event for an author passing through the area. The group has a number of regular members and some people who come to a couple of meetings a year or come for only one title because their interest lies in that book or its author. Some others like to stay on an e-mail list so they are aware of what is being read. Most of the members are USA-born, some grew up in Arab countries, or lived as adults in Arab countries, and some are immigrants from Arab countries and other countries of the world.
The book selection process is as follows:
The coordinator of the group, usually one of the regular members, collects suggestions through the year. There is a small committee of volunteers from the group that look into the availability and the price of books. This is because most of the members buy their own copies, while the library buys two copies of each title for the circulating collection.
Who and what get chosen:
1. Works by Arab writers in translation to the English language.
2. The work could be written originally in Arabic or any other world language, as long as the writer is Arab or of Arab heritage. So, translations from Arabic, French, Hebrew, etc. have been chosen and works by Arab-American writers and Arab writers in exile are chosen.
3. Market availability.
4. Moderate price–when we started it was $10 and less, now we are up to $15 and sometimes more.
5. There is a balance of the Arab countries presented in terms of authors’ countries of origin.
6. There is a balance of the gender of the writers.
There were many educational opportunities in this process through the years. Some questions came up which I’ll address below:
Why not world literature discussion group that includes Arabic literature?
Because you can’t lump the whole world’s literatures in one group while you have the “Western” literature in all its genres enjoy their own book group. Here is where equity, respect and valuing come into the picture.
Why not a Middle East Book group?
Because Middle East is not a country, actually it’s a forced “entity” by the once dominant colonial powers of Great Britain and France. It’s a political identity that people of the Arab countries still refuse. There is not a Middle East language and literature is written in a language. The cultures of the area are diverse and so are their languages.
Why are some mediocre and “bad” novels being translated and made readily available in the market?
The group has come to the conclusion that this is what sells in America. It is a shame, since many novels exist only in Arabic which might be of interest to the group.
Why have we found beautiful cover illustrations and pictures of the original novel replaced by an ugly or a stereotypical image that is not related to the novel itself, mostly chosen for the USA market?
The group has come to the conclusion that US publishers select these illustrations based on pre-conceived ideas about what will attract US readers.
The group also came up with a list of questions that the members were asked to keep with them while reading the books. This was as a result of meetings being dragged into discussions of matters that fall into stereotypes rather than the novel itself; something that occasionally occurs when newcomers participate and which causes frustration to regular members.
On the topic of stereotypes, you can imagine how after September 11, 2001, tragedies I was overwhelmed with requests to help start Arabic book groups in libraries near and far, in the USA, Canada and other parts of the world. It sadden me to see my beautiful language, literature and culture now on demand that is driven by horrible circumstances.
I did help and advise while I kept my bitter feelings inside of me. I always thought to keep the diversity of the Arabic culture in mind. An Arab could mean that a person is Muslim, Christian or Jew, along with many other sects and non-mainstream practices. To fully appreciate different cultures, one must put issues in historical perspective and validate opposing narratives. In 2008, I spoke at the American Library Association Annual Conference on the topic of “Gender in Arabic Literature” to an audience of more than 125 people.
For me, this group continues to be a “home away from home,” among other opportunities, such as nature walks. I feel fulfilled by its success and still find time to enjoy family gatherings for a holiday dinner or baby and bridal showers, or just going together to happy hours.
Input from a few regular members:
One member joined about 10 years ago because she finally moved to a municipality that had such a group.
I am half Palestinian and longed for contact with my paternal culture which tends to be very quiet and buried in the US, unless you live among many others. I live far from most of my relatives and until I moved to Boulder and found the book club I did not live near any other Arabs that I knew of. Besides the opportunities to be steeped in the literature, there are great opportunities to discuss culture, values, practices, ask why those are practices and on and on. It has been a valuable part of my own personal journey. And while I am at it, one that I am so very grateful for. Thank you Ghada and partners who founded this book club.
In my case, participation in the “Arabic Literature in Translation Reading Group” derives from meeting a wonderful Outreach Librarian at Boulder Public Library: Ghada Elturk. I was coming back to my home in Boulder, from my native country of México, like so many times in my 40 years of living in Boulder. In this particular occasion many years ago, though, I had participated in a Mexican government supported workshop to increase the number of communal centers of adult education outside of the country of México. The basis of such a training is that the Education Department of México provides the materials (electronic software and tools) for people of any background, Spanish speaking, who want to pursue education and achieve certification (official Mexican Department of Education) at the elementary, secondary or higher levels of formal education, with the idea that from there, it is easier for adults to acquire their GED or equivalent certification from the country of residence in another language.
This is a program that has been successful in many sites of the United States, Canada and several other countries of the world, particularly with support of libraries or other community centers that provide space (usually a room) and some tools (a handful of computers), that can be used by adult students pursuing their certification through electronic “assistance” to the educational tools provided by the Mexican government. I came back then with a big canvas bag with equipment that explained “how to” start such educational facility.
What to do with that?
So, I called my old friend, Ms. Tate. Somebody that warmly gave me friendship when those cold snowy winter months or very hot summer months of Colorado pushed me, with my three little children, to a safe place with the right temperature: The Children’s Section of the Public Library. Ms. Tate was the main librarian in that section. Thinking of that, I have to say that, like children with Christmas gifts, my kids were able to come out from the library with whatever piles of books they could hug in their arms, and then, every day, specially before bed, they could select whatever story they chose from those piles, like gifts from heaven. In that occasion, Ms. Tate simply solved the problem of where was the appropriate place to locate my materials: “Call Ghada,” she said. Ghada received those materials, which she tells me she still has, waiting for the opportunity to use them. But most important for me, Ghada, the librarian, instantly, it seems, became my friend.
Probably instantly she also invited me to start coming to the Arabic Book Group. But “what do I know about Arabic anything aside of my favorite heroine Scheherazade and the One thousand and One Night stories of my childhood books?” I think she answered: “Exactly! That is why you should come.” After these many years (at least six or seven), I have to say I am grateful and much more richer in my life: I know a little bit more about all those countries I didn’t know anything about: Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia; many others, including the USA…because reading from anyplace always makes us prone to comparisons to figure out differences and similarities. Other cultures make us, human beings, realize that any culture has things to teach us, regardless of differences. Cultures make us, human beings, become better people of this only one world of ours.
I wish I could have the time to belong and participate in every language-reading group available! But that is not possible. Participating in this Arabic book group, for now, has been reopening a magic chest for me. Scheherazade has grown in my mind and heart… she now tells me more stories or much more things than simply the one hundred thousand ones might had been in my memories of a child and teenager growing up in México City…
This is why I keep attending the Arabic Book Reading Group at the Boulder Public Library, to what I have to add: it has become a part of my friendship support group for a better quality of life in my home town of residence.
The most pivotal time of my childhood, that time when we attain adult awareness and connection with the world but remain, apparently, just a child emerging into early adolescence, was lived in Damascus, Syria and Beirut, Lebanon. My father had a complex and busy professional life which since I could remember meant he was often not at home with us (my mother and my sister, three years my junior) or when he was at home his work claimed most of his time and focus.
The first caring, kind and supportive man, reliably present in my life, was Abdul, a Palestinian refugee in Damascus, who became the organizing and supporting center of our house and the heart of our home. He taught my sister and me to dance to the Arabic music which filled our home during the days when our busy diplomat parents were elsewhere. Abdul, also taught us to waltz, initially putting our feet on his and dancing us around in classic Viennese circles. Abdul’s kindness and the joy he took in life, in spite of having been driven from his home in Palestine and having only refugee status in Syria, where he, his wife and their beautiful little girls lived in a refugee camp, have been a beacon for me ever since.
My three years in Damascus (including 6 months in Beirut with my mother and sister as temporary refugees after the Suez Crisis, 1956) were where I grew up, emotionally, and where I learned what integrity was and how essential it is. Those years were profoundly generative for me and have remained my brightest and most vital memories.
I also missed that world and learned over time how little it was known or respected by most Americans. Over the years, I almost gave up trying to counter the negative stereotyping of the Arab World which I consistently encountered in this country.
I had been working for the City of Boulder’s Police Department for many years when I learned about a community program in the elementary and middle schools called, Reading to End Racism and I wanted to participate. Someone directed me to the Library’s Outreach Librarian, Ghada Elturk, as the person who could assist me with suggestions and materials. It turned out that she was not only willing and able to help but she was the reason there was a Reading to End Racism program in Boulder, having generated the idea, with two community members, and then supported it with the Library’s resources.
Boulder’s Library had become a community-centered and generative force which in earlier days libraries had always been. When I learned that the Library had a book group focused on Arabic Literature I could not believe my good fortune! For me, the opportunity to explore and discuss the works of Arabic writers with others who are interested was a great gift and one that went far toward healing the wounds of so many years when I encountered only disinterest or actual negativity in this country when wanting to talk about the vital and diverse people who make up the “Arab World”.
Thanks to our Arabic Book Club, I have been able to re-engage with the world I cherished through its past and present writers and the broad range of their views and experiences. My life-long connection has been given new life and my memories have been joined by real-time engagement with the diversity in our membership and in the books we read. I have grown and learned and made good friends I would never otherwise have had the opportunity to know.
I also believe that the community-centered nature of a library and its accessability are essential to the richness and success of a book club interested in the broader world. Our membership is fluid and is always open to anyone at any point in time. The background and interests of our members are varied and the mix is always generative. The other model of book clubs is that of genesis through already existing personal connection. There is no need to choose which model is best — they can and do certainly co-exist in the lives of many of our members. Yet, the shifting chemistry of our conversations as our very different members ebb and flow offers unique insights and connections, which are less likely to occur in membership-centered book clubs. Library-sponsored book clubs are community-based book clubs and inherently powerful generators of understanding what and whom we don’t yet know…
Virginia Molloy Lucy
As for me, I stumbled upon the Arabic Book Club by accident while searching the web for Arabic language classes in Boulder. I’d always wished to learn Arabic fluently after having lived most of my childhood until 17 years of age in Egypt. Unfortunately during that time, my parents were sure we’d move to the US and I would be at a loss if I’d taken Arabic instead of a US “foreign language” such as Spanish. So, I speak Spanish quite well, but Arabic evades me.
Although I didn’t find the colloquial Arabic language class in Boulder that I was searching for, I did join the book group. I will say that I have mostly enjoyed novels in which glimpses into the history of the Arab countries are revealed. I have not been as fond of the depressing and “heavy” novels we’ve read concerning oppression and torment of groups or individuals. That’s not to say that I’m not open to understanding such situations (for example Israeli oppression of Palestinians or oppression of women), just that I like diversity in what I read and have found, along with other regular members, that what seems to sell in the US is these grievous tales. Perhaps that suits most of the population because they require a greater awareness of these issues. Aside from that, the group has been very enjoyable for me. I truly appreciate interacting with the other members and am thrilled that I’m reading literature I might not otherwise even know about.
I am more of a non-fiction reader than a fiction reader. I really appreciate the discussions for hearing other people’s insights, insights that I would never have picked up on my own but which I highly value. Other members of the group are much more literate and provide connections and analysis to better understand the literature.
I’m an interested world citizen, but my American background is the foundation of my basic world view. Having a native Arabic speaker who can help with language questions in the texts is invaluable. Having people with backgrounds in different countries gives us a well-rounded viewpoint and the opportunity for an intellectual, thoughtful and respectful discussion. I have learned so much about culture and history of the Arab world through the readings and the discussions.
I did live and work in Bahrain for 9 months. I joined the group to continue learning about the region. In almost every reading or discussion I come across something that strikes a sentimental chord with me about my time in Bahrain. Living in Bahrain was a wonderful experience, and I enjoy reliving it through this book discussion group.
More on how to start your own book club:
- For suggestions on books, you can visit the Boulder Library website, which lists Arabic books discussed going back as early as 1996.
- You can find more great suggestions from the Dubai-based Read Kutub group; they also share background on their books, as well as suggested discussion questions.
- And of course ArabLit has its own reading-challenge suggestions.
- There is a great deal more information about starting a book club online: from CNN, Oprah, WikiHow, and others. You can also, of course, contact your local library.