Sheikha Bodour bint Sultan Al Qasimi has many credentials: president of the U.A.E. Board on Books for Young People, director of Knowledge Without Borders, winner of the British Council’s Young Creative Entrepreneur Publishing Award 2012. But her ultimate goal is to promote literature across the Arab world with a focus on children.
What was your inspiration for starting your children’s publishing company, Kalimat? What is the significance of the name Kalimat?
Kalimat came into being out of the synergy of passion and need—the passion I have always had for the written word and the need to pass this love on to my children. I have always loved reading and I was extremely excited to introduce my daughter to the wonderful world of books. I started reading to her when she was only a few months old, but by the time she turned four I had to face the realization that it was almost impossible to find any books, in any bookshop, dealing with the everyday issues faced by the average Arabic child, and not just bookshops in the U.A.E., but also those I visited while traveling abroad. I was truly shocked to find that the only books with reasonably good stories were poor translations of foreign books. Not only did the original story get lost in translation, but the situations described in these books were from environments that most Arabic children would have difficulty relating to. It became clear to me that someone needed to take the initiative to publish quality Arabic children’s literature written by Arabs with stories and settings that our children would find familiar and relevant to their lives. I chose the name Kalimat, which means “words,” because words are powerful. They are a key to opening up a child’s imagination. Through the use of the right words children can learn to solve problems, resolve conflict, and create understanding and compassion. These are the tools I want to ensure that every Arabic-speaking child has at hand.
How important were books to you as a child?
Books have always been a large part of my life. Some of my most favorite childhood memories are of the bedtime stories my aunts used to read to me as a child. I used to look forward to them every time I went to sleep over at my grandmother’s house, and I can still remember them clearly today. These stories were full of fun and imagination, and usually had my siblings and me laughing all night. I have no doubt that it was these treasured family times that laid the foundation for a lifetime of passion for the written word.
Is part of your mission to promote the Arabic language?
As a proud Arabic speaker, I feel it is my duty to ensure that this wonderful language keeps going strong. The rate of change and development that many of the Arabic-speaking countries of the world have undergone in the past few decades is both unprecedented and extraordinary. This change has, however, also put a great deal of pressure on the culture of these countries; the younger generation is becoming increasingly modern and globalized. In this context it has become imperative to make sure that we keep the Arabic language both current and relevant through up-to-date publications and by supporting creative Arabic writing talent. We have thousands of years of rich literary tradition and a great pool of talent—none of which should be allowed to go to waste.
Do you envision Kalimat’s books being translated into other languages as a cultural entrée to Arabic culture for children?
Books are a wonderful way to bridge cultural divides, and for this reason we recently sold the international publishing rights to a number of our books. It is a groundbreaking move on our part as traditionally very few Arabic titles make their way onto the international market, and the numbers dwindle even further when it comes to children’s literature. Earlier this year we sold the worldwide publishing rights for the books Ibn Battuta and Faten, both by celebrated Arabic children’s author Fatima Sharafeddine, to the Swedish publishing house Bokförlaget Trasten and to Toronto-based Groundwood Books. Through bringing books from this region to the children of the world, we can foster greater compassion and cultural understanding among future generations, regardless of where they are from, and carry out our goals on a global level.
How personally involved are you with choosing the books?
Kalimat focuses on producing books that are child-centric, of great quality, and cover a wide variety of topics that would pique a child’s interest. Every book we publish is a labor of love and treated with care. For this reason, I am personally involved in every part of every book published by Kalimat. From the editing of the text, choosing the illustrations, to the choice of cover art and distribution channels, I like to oversee the entire process to ensure delivering the best possible quality books to our children.
What are your hopes for the future? Are you pleased with the enterprise so far?
I am extremely proud of the remarkable growth that Kalimat has undergone since we first started [in 2007]. Our main objective is always to produce books that not only speak to children on a personal and emotional level, but also inspire a love for reading in them. In the five years since we’ve started we have already passed the 120-book mark, been nominated for and won a number of awards, made our presence felt in the region and beyond, and have a list of exciting new titles on the way. I look forward to seeing the records we will still break, the wonderful stories we will still publish, and most of all the many children’s lives our books will touch.
How do you address the question of piracy?
Piracy in the region is a major concern and one that, in my involvement with the Emirate Publishers Association, I am glad to be able to report is being dealt with quite effectively in the U.A.E. There is a memorandum of understanding between the EPA and the Emirates Intellectual Property Association, and meetings have also been held with the International Federation of Reproduction Rights Organisations to discuss the establishment of an intellectual property rights center in the U.A.E., which would be the first of its kind in the Arab world.