x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Sharjah website supplies the world with Arabic books

Arabohdraws on 8,000 titles from more than 40 publishers in the region to filla major gap in the market for books written in Arabic.

Araboh, drawing on 8,000 titles from more than 40 publishers in the region, has filled a major gap in the market for children's books written in Arabic. Amy Leang / The National
Araboh, drawing on 8,000 titles from more than 40 publishers in the region, has filled a major gap in the market for children's books written in Arabic. Amy Leang / The National

As a child, Jinanne Tabra remembers the feeling of dread that kicked in every Friday as a weekend of Arabic classes loomed ahead; the screaming fits and the tantrums she would throw to get out of them and the inevitable defeat when she glumly dragged herself into a classroom while her schoolfriends got to play outside.

Then again, this was Carnoustie on the east coast of Scotland, so there cannot have been much else in the way of distraction.

Whether it's a sadistic streak or a gluttony for punishment isn't clear but Tabra, now 24, has found herself back in the classroom.

This time, though, she is at the forefront of the school curriculum with her website Araboh.com, dubbed the Arabic Amazon, and insists learning can be fun.

The site stocks Arabic literature with a vast database of books for children, chosen because they are colourful and engaging, and they are shipped around the world.

And rather than inflicting the same torturous learning she endured, she wants reading Arabic to be an enjoyable experience for today's youngsters.

That's a world away from her own upbringing. With an Iraqi father and a Scottish mother - the pair met, aged 20 and 17 respectively, when they were at college - it was important to her parents, bringing her up in Scotland, to imbue her with a sense of her Arab identity.

When Tabra was five years old, they moved to Iraq but left a year later when the Gulf War broke out.

Stranded in Carnoustie, where the Arab community consisted mainly of a handful of relatives, her aunts took it upon themselves to run a weekend school. Tabra hated it.

"My parents wanted me to learn Arabic," she says.

"It was a real struggle for me to learn about the culture and the language. There was not a huge Arab community and we did not have any resources. We were the only Arab family in our neighbourhood so we were different.

"I went to a white middle-class school and all the Arab children had a Saturday and Sunday school where my aunts would teach.

"I would cry every Friday night and beg my parents not to make me go. I was giving up every weekend and could not play with my friends; I hated it."

The weekend punishment lasted four years, from the age of eight to 12, when the family moved to Doha in Qatar.

Hindsight can be a wonderful thing, but Tabra now admits those classes gave her a foundation in her cultural background.

"Now I am older, I really appreciate I had that opportunity," she says.

At the Qatar Academy, where she spent the rest of her school life, she was able to fit in more easily.

"Everyone was like me; it was a welcome relief," she says. "Being able to see the culture around me made it easier."

Although she was fluent in spoken Arabic, she struggled to read and write, but found she was not alone. Even teenagers who had grown up in the Middle East were more fluent in English than their native tongue.

And when her mother, Dawn, who was working as a librarian, pointed out that Qatari parents were complaining that their children preferred reading books in English than in Arabic, something clicked.

"Children growing up the way I grew up did not stand a chance," she says. "I decided to set up the website as a resource for people like me around the world."

At the time, there was a limited amount of material on the market. Arabic textbooks tended to be black and white with little in the way of illustration and a reputation for being archaic, while there were few inspiring children's authors.

Tabra, with a business degree under her belt, registered Araboh.com in Sharjah Free Zone in November 2007 and secured warehouse space in the emirate with Dh500,000 invested by her father, Ez.

But she had a battle on her hands: there was scant understanding of e-commerce from publishers in the Middle East and she had to convince them of the potential of such a venture.

"It was a big challenge," she says. "We had to talk to everyone from banks to shippers to publishers and educate them about the first business of its kind.

"We secured publishers in places like Dubai, Syria and Egypt, but a lot of them are slow on communication; some have great products but are not even on email. Initially it was frustrating."

From an original database of 12 publishers, Araboh - the "oh" is a term of endearment when tagged onto the end of any word - now has more than 40 and a catalogue of about 8,000 titles. Some are scholastic editions; others are translations; others still are fresh creations.

Tabra and her team scour literary shows for inspiration, with the rule that the books have to be written in Arabic. "We have a thorough selection process," she says. "It is really important that the books are fun, colourful and engaging and can compete with the best of other material out there.

"It can be difficult to find but the Arabic children's book industry has come a long way. That material is out there, you just have to look for it. The goal is to have it available under one roof."

She has her work cut out. A recent survey by Yahoo! Maktoob Research found a third of under-25-year-olds in the Middle East hardly read or never read a book for pleasure, while the Arab League estimates 100 million people in the region are illiterate.

There has been much debate about the causes. There is a sense that Arabic in its written form has been much maligned, whether through poor teaching methods in schools, a lack of available literature or too much emphasis on learning English.

Tellingly, more than two-thirds of Tabra's customers are in the US - she also does a decent trade in the UK, Europe and Australia - while less than one in 10 are from the Middle East.

In this region, she has been working with schools and libraries to expand their collections.

"The US is the market that understands shopping online," she says. "There is still a lot of potential and we have only just begun to reach out to the market audience."

She concedes there has been a lack of available Arabic literature: "Teachers in Arabic schools said they could not get children interested so would photocopy pictures from English books and write their own stories around them."

But, she says, parents are also part of the equation and have to be drawn into the process.

On her website, which was revamped a month ago, she gives step-by-step instructions on what children should be reading at each stage and offers free downloads, games and activities to engage both parent and child.

"It is early days. I would like to see children choosing Arabic material over the English alternative," Tabra says.

She married Bostonian Ramzi Ramsey, 26, a private-equity expert, in July 2009 and moved to the US; this year, after struggling to keep up the commute, she transferred the business there too.

They have not started a family yet but, when they do, she says she might still send their children to an Arabic-language school.

"If there is a weekend school, I might send them there," she chuckles. "They will be raised in the US and I think it is important for them to have access to Arabic materials. But I will make sure I show them how fun it can be."