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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 27 March 2019

The Emirati engineer who became an author, and then started a publishing house

Author and academic Ahmed Al Shoaibi founded Al Rawy Publishing to keep local culture alive and help build self-confidence in kids

Ahmed Al Shoaibi peruses the collection published by his company Al Rawy Publishing, on the shelves of children’s bookshop, Bookworm. Reem Mohammed / The National
Ahmed Al Shoaibi peruses the collection published by his company Al Rawy Publishing, on the shelves of children’s bookshop, Bookworm. Reem Mohammed / The National

When he wrote and self-published his first book ­almost three years ago, called UAE, My Homeland, a patriotic homage to his country in the wake of UAE soldiers who died in Yemen, Emirati author Ahmed Al Shoaibi did not imagine it would lead to opening his own publishing house.

“There are two kinds of books: window books to look into other cultures and mirror books, where we see our own. For many years, all we have had here have been the window books,” Al Shoaibi says. “When children read these, it has the power to influence their self-esteem, self-image and identity. We needed more mirror books. It’s important children see that a hero or heroine can look like them. This builds self-confidence and acceptance; crucial things to build from a young age.”

The Camel and the Drone, a children’s book by Ahmed Al Shoaibi. Reem Mohammed / The National
The Camel and the Drone, a children’s book by Ahmed Al Shoaibi. Reem Mohammed / The National

For him, the publishing house, called Al Rawy, which is Arabic for “the narrator”, has a purpose: “sharing our own stories with our own voices, as a way to let the expatriates in”, though authors are not limited to Emiratis. The Abu Dhabi Book Fair 2016 launched his first five books. It was during school visits that he realised how powerful literature was, and could be, and that drove him to creating Al Rawy Publishing. “I wanted something small that was author-centric,” says the 39-year-old chemical engineer who works at Khalifa University. “The publishing industry is so skewed towards publishers and authors get next to nothing. I didn’t want that so I created this. I wanted to keep what we do niche, to the promoting of Emirati identity, so any story I saw which matched that goal, I would support. My authors know that they’re not at the mercy of the big publishers.”

The value of an Emirati publishing house

As well as two specialist bookstores in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the books are being sold at Louvre Abu Dhabi and Warner Bros World, taking the literature into the international domain. “As an Emirati from Abu Dhabi, that’s very special,” he says. “At the time I started this, there were no books about Abu Dhabi in English. Now we have books about this country and its people and I’m very proud of that.”

The company has authors producing books, including Al Shoaibi himself, and he has a pool of two editors and four illustrators. Australian school teacher, Shama Khan, is one of the authors in the portfolio. She started writing children’s stories in 2015 while she was an Abu Dhabi resident. “I was tutoring Emirati children and found they were not interested in reading,” she says. “There were very few books for young children with Arab or Emirati characters and I wanted to write stories to encourage Emirati children to develop a love of reading, strengthen their cultural identity and promote cultural understanding.”

So far, Khan has had six stories published in English by Al Rawy Publishing, including Be Confident Shaikha, Keep Trying Saif and Who Likes Emirati Food.

Ahmed Al Shoaibi was inspired to write and publish patriotic stories after the UAE lost 45 martyrs in Yemen, October 2015. Reem Mohammed / The National
Ahmed Al Shoaibi was inspired to write and publish patriotic stories after the UAE lost 45 martyrs in Yemen, October 2015. Reem Mohammed / The National

“It is extremely valuable to have an Emirati publishing house,” she says. “These days most children find their electronic devices and phones more engaging than storybooks and they miss out on the joy of reading. Emirati children who meet Ahmed feel that his stories are written for them. Historically, reading books was not part of Emirati culture, as stories were passed on orally from one generation to the next.”

Al Shoaibi says part of the authors’ success is that the books are seen as fun; not merely an educational tool with a moral lesson or message – what he calls the “preaching” of traditional Arabic stories. He wants his books to be something that children can get pleasure from; an important turning point in changing the culture of reading.

Inspiring others to follow suit

Cultivating this culture, he says in spite of changing times, he will not take the books digital. In a report earlier this year, Dubai’s education regulator, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority, found that just 55 per cent of children read for pleasure. “I don’t want to encourage more screen time for children,” Al Shoaibi says. “There’s always a book on my night stand and it’s a habit I grew up with. I would like children to have this relationship to books in their hands. It’s about creating a habit of just reading for the joy of reading.”

Ruth Kiernan is co-owner of Bookworm, the children’s bookshop which is one of just four distributors Al Shoaibi has chosen to work with. Kiernan has 20 years of experience specialising in children’s literature, and she says there has always been a huge gap in the UAE market for what Al Rawy Publishing is finally doing. “This is what schools want in their libraries,” she says. “Emirati children see the characters and identify with the heroes and heroines, and expat children get to learn about the culture of the UAE, so it’s win-win,” she says.

Having a local publishing house pioneering such literature, she says, will help to evolve the whole culture of locally based literature. “It will inspire others to follow suit,” she says.

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Al Shoaibi says this is the chance to preserve precious history within the books’ pages. “Our culture is so full of fascinating stories and it’s at risk of being forgotten if it’s not written down. I’m passionate about sharing this.”

The door is open for not only Emirati authors, but for anyone who shares Al Shoaibi’s mission. Another of the three authors he works with is British UAE resident Dan Bryant, the author behind Daniel of the Desert. “I think what Ahmed has created is invaluable for both the region and the writers within it. Al Rawy Publishing provides an inclusive platform for authors of all nationalities to contribute to a burgeoning body of literature within an Emirati narrative. It can only be a good thing,” Bryant says.

His book, about a British child whose family emigrates to the UAE, tells the story of the young boy’s friendship with his Emirati classmate, Hamad, who helps to show him what a wonderful place his new home is. “Put simply, it’s a heart-warming story of two boys from different cultures who share common interests,” Bryant says.

He is currently writing the book’s sequel, due be published next year.

Al Rawy books for your kids to read

The Space Nokhitha (Nokhitha is the old Arabic word for ship captain) Ahmed Al Shoaibi Emirati pupil Ayesha comes home from school excited to tell her mother that she has decided to become the first Arab girl to land on Mars. Her mother does not share her enthusiasm. As her grandfather tries to console her, Ayesha discovers that he was also very curious about the world and became a well known Nokhitha of the sea when he was young, and he promises to help her fulfil her dream.

The Camel and the Drone Ahmed Al Shoaibi – Being one of the few students in school who does not own one of the popular new drone toys, Shoaibi’s beloved character Hamad begins to feel isolated. To make matters worse, children bully him when they find out he has a pet camel. Hamad challenges the bully to a race between his camel and the bully’s drone.

Abu Dhabi Places to See Ahmed Al Shoaibi and Shama Khan - The story’s main character, Ahmed, is used as a tour guide to some of the capital’s best known sights, including historical landmarks, water parks and the famous Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque.

Our Father, Zayed Ahmed Al Shoabi - Al Shoaibi wrote this book for The Year of Zayed, to introduce children to the journey of the country’s Founding Father and historic leader.

Updated: December 17, 2018 05:21 PM

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