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In its inaugural presentation on the eve of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (May 23 to 29), the Abu Dhabi Arabic Language Centre has opened its bilingual International Congress of Arabic Publishing and Creative Industries today with the accomplished stagecraft and spacious production values common to such professionally produced conference events in the United Arab Emirates.

The Language Centre’s Dr. Ali Bin Tamim‘s bracing opening comments were typically eloquent, as he spoke of the remarkable “flexibility of the digital world,” which remains out of reach in some parts of the Arab world and at times is misunderstood for its potential value to the international distribution and exposure that Arabic-language work deserves.

Bin Tamim’s commitment to the promotion of Arabic literature is clear, of course, in his work as secretary-general of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award, the industry leading prize regime which on Tuesday (May 24) will celebrate its 16th class of laureates in an invitational program at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

The Sheikha Bodour Al Qasimi—who is president of the International Publishers Association (IPA), the founding publisher of the Kalimat Group and the Emirates Publishers Association, and the daughter of the Sheikh Dr. Sultan Bin Mohammed Al Qasimi, the author-ruler of Sharjah—spoke of her meetings with IPA publishers on her travels to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Tunisia, and of “their passion and enthusiasm for nurturing local talents, encouraging local content, and expanding the role of techn0logy in business.”

In her comments, you could hear the moving personal devotion that Al Qasimi has made a hallmark of her work. “In recent years,” she said, the Arab publishing sector has been active with many internal debates that are establishing a new understanding of the pivotal role publishing plays, and can play, not only in supporting cultural development but also in supporting the comprehensive development of the people of the region.”

Al Qasimi spoke movingly of these market players’ struggles with “the current state of copyrights and freedom of speech, especially in light of the recent spike in digital piracy during the COVID-19 pandemic,” a dramatically difficult challenge for the book business frequently unsupported by the needed law-enforcement and protection publishers and authors require.

“I hope you will continue to ask questions, no matter how difficult or complex they are. We’re currently witnessing the writing of a new chapter in the history of the publishing sector. It’s a chapter that requires a deep understanding of the ongoing transformative change and adapting to them as fast as possible to continue the journey.”

In the day’s first panel, on Arabic publishing, much time and attention went to issues of digital publication in the region, the race to embrace it in the wake of the pandemic’s “digital acceleration,” and the gulf that may exist at times between publishers’ efforts and intentions and varying levels receptiveness among members of the public to new modes of content consumption.

Storytel’s Stefanie Lamprinidi, who heads the Stockholm-based company’s content expansion effort, said that in the Arab region, the subscription operation, about five years in the MENA area, is seeing a common early preference for nonfiction in its audiobook listeners. This, she said, can be expected to expand to more fiction, following the trend Storytel sees in its more mature audio markets.

Shereen Kreidieh, general manager of Beirut-based children’s publishing house Asala, told the audience that Sweden is not necessarily a good comparative market for the Arab world (and many other world markets) in terms of its adoption of audio and ebook consumption. She’s correct, of course, in that Storytel was founded there in 2006 by Jonas Tellander, and the Nordic markets have consistently led in international interest and usage in digital formats, most prominently audio.

Nevertheless, in our in-depth interview with Yasmina Jraissati, who is publishing manager for Storytel in the Middle East and North African area, she has made the point that Storytel has an important role to play in the market’s transition, “providing a high-quality service and showing people there’s a more sustainable way to consume audiobooks than piracy.”

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