Online Book Clubs Keep Conversations on Arab Literature Alive
Book clubs and literary salons have transformed with changing times and technologies. Recently, the Internet has driven a major shift toward online book clubs. In 1998, Arab World Books launched one of the biggest and oldest online Arabic book clubs, creating a literary community across borders. Many others followed, and book discussions have flourished on social-media platforms.
Before the coronavirus lockdowns, most online book clubs focused on asynchronous, bulletin-board style conversations. But the restrictions that came in the wake of Covid-19 created a new desire for social engagement online. This, perhaps, will make a permanent shift in online book groups, particularly those that focus on international readerships.
Several Arab and Arabic book groups that met in person have moved online, mostly to Zoom or Clubhouse. Other new groups, like the popular like Adabiyat, launched in 2020.
Margaret Obank of Banipal magazine, which has run an Arab-literature-focused book club since April 2012, found both advantages and disadvantages to meeting on Zoom. “Going forward, I hope that we can come up with some kind of hybrid solution.”
In 2020, virtual events were an important part of sustaining and creating literary community. There were festivals like Palestine Writes and Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, and many publishers launched talks and readings on Zoom. (See two related articles, “How One Arab Arts Festival Transformed Itself to Save Its Season” and “‘Healing the Distance’: Successful Online Literary Events.”)
Online book clubs are smaller, but more sustained. Some have had speakers and schedules planned out weeks or months in advance, while others have hosted more free-ranging discussions.
A Conversation Revived
For organizers of book clubs we talked to, most participants were women. “Still baffled by this,” Sarah Alaoui, a co-founder of Adabiyat, said over email, “and hope we can change this.”
Adabiyat, founded by Alaoui and Lina Barkawi, is a particularly successful Arab-literature focused book club that that launched last summer. Although it doesn’t have an institutional home, Alaoui and Barkawi had experience creating literary community.
Sarah Alaoui and Lina Barkawi, co-founders of Adabiyat, used to run an in-person book club in Washington, D.C. When they saw the range of virtual events starting up during the coronavirus lockdowns, they felt inspired to revive the initiative online.
“Lina and I used to run an in-person book club focused on literature from the Arab world at the Middle East Books and More bookstore in D.C.,” Alaoui said over email. “We started it five years ago to offer local readers an opportunity to read fiction from Arab writers (including diaspora) in their own words. Unfortunately, about two years ago, we both got busy with work and school, and Lina moved to New York, so we had to abandon our baby.”
When they saw the range of virtual events happening in the spring of 2020, they felt inspired to revive the initiative, which now holds a new online book-group meeting roughly once a month. Their members come from around the United States, as well as “Spain, France, the United Arab Emirates, and more!”
In-Person Clubs That Moved Online
Other groups, such as Banipal and MENAWA, have long held discussions in person. The MENAWA book club was founded in 2014 at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom.
“We usually had about 10 people in person, from all over,” said Lindsey Moore, one of the group’s founders. “We moved online last Spring due to Covid-19, “and it’s open to anyone who’s interested. The core group is quite small and is still academic, but we’ve also had general readers from the U.K. and beyond.”
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The Banipal Book Club also had in-person events at the Arab British Centre’s BALMAL library in London, until it moved online in April 2020. Since then, the group has been holding monthly events, largely to discuss Arabic literature in English translation. The Cairo-based writer Riham Adly, who has now been able to attend online sessions, said, “I like the Zoom book clubs because it allows me to be in the same room with people from all over the world. I met award-winning translators, and was able to talk and express, even criticize.”
Different Groups, Different Protocols
Barkawi, of Adabiyat, said that the online version of a book club brings a wider range of perspectives.
“What we found particularly valuable was hearing from readers in the countries in which our books have been set,” Barkawi said. She said that when the group read Yasmina Khadra’s What the Day Owes the Night, a French-Algerian member added depth and nuance to the group’s understanding of the historical events described in the novel.
“What we found particularly valuable was hearing from readers in the countries in which our books have been set.”Lina Barkawi
A co-founder of Adabiyat
Barkawi said that some of Adabiyat’s readers would have attended a virtual group either way, but the Covid lockdown also “served as a catalyst for readers who are more occasional types of readers and who were burnt out from the realities of living under quarantine. Adabiyat provided the opportunity to leave their troubles, enter a new world, and followed by an engagement with others openly and for the purposes of simply friendly discussion.”
As for MENAWA, Moore said, the main difference with taking a book club online has to do with the technology. This was not just about its failures, she said, although those existed, but also because of how online protocols prevent everyone from talking all at once, “which used to happen when we met in coffeeshops, etc., due to enthusiasm and everyone knowing each other.”
Starting Your Own Online Book Club
Sarah Alaoui said that having a specific hook around a book club is a good way to attract a more engaged, and to attract a diverse member base.
“With an online book club, it’s also easier to curate membership from around the world and different backgrounds—for example, we engage with current and potential members through our social media pages (Twitter, Instagram) and reach out to translators, writers, and other Arab literature aficionados to learn more about what they’re reading and invite them to our group.”
Moore added that you have to “keep plugging it and plugging it, preferably with an appealing poster, book-cover images, and hashtags. All our non-Lancaster audience has come via Twitter.”
A Sampling of 5 Online Book Clubs
Following are descriptions of five online book groups with discussions in English and Arabic:
- Adabiyat. You can follow updates about Adabiyat’s latest reads on Twitter. Their ninth meetup, scheduled for April 25, will focus on Hanan al-Shaykh’s The Locust and the Bird, translated by Roger Allen. Discussion in English.
- Banipal. With meetings online during the Covid-19 crisis, the Banipal Book Club discusses Arabic literature in English translation. Its next meeting, set for April 29, will focus on Meryem Alaoui’s Straight from the Horse’s Mouth, translated by Emma Ramadan.
- Inkitab. This nonprofit organization, based in Amman, works to enable reading in societies and to supply Arabic content related to books on the Internet. Join its regular book discussions on Clubhouse.
- MENAWA. Based at Lancaster University, MENAWA is a research and reading group that focuses on Arab literature. You can follow its selections on Twitter.
- Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center Library. The SQCC Library Book Club is set to discuss Jokha al-Harthi’s Sayyidat al-Qamr via Zoom on April 28, 2021. The author will be there; discussion in Arabic. Sign up to join on Zoom.