A digital library offers Saudis affordable access to scholarly research

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Zendy will create a vast online academic library available to access across the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)
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Zendy will create a vast online academic library available to access across the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)
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Zendy will create a vast online academic library available to access across the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)
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Zendy will create a vast online academic library available to access across the Middle East and North Africa. (Supplied)
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Updated 22 March 2021

A digital library offers Saudis affordable access to scholarly research

  • Saudi students, researchers and professionals will soon benefit from a vast new digital library of academic literature
  • Zendy’s creator Kamran Kardan says his ed-tech start-up will help the MENA region develop knowledge-based economies

DUBAI: A Dubai-based edutech start-up has launched a digital library for researchers in Saudi Arabia — the first subscription-based library for scholarly literature of its kind in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Academic literature is usually hidden behind expensive paywalls or restricted to those who are affiliated with big organizations. Now Zendy, developed by Knowledge E, is offering users affordable access to scholarly works from around the world.

In step with the Kingdom’s Vision 2030 development agenda and its efforts to foster a culture of research, innovation and entrepreneurship, Zendy will give students, professionals and hobbyists access to thousands of articles, e-books and scholarly resources.




Zendy will seek to streamline the often cumbersome process of accessing academic texts online. (AFP)

“Zendy is a massive online library available to every single individual in the region,” Kamran Kardan, Knowledge E founder and CEO, told Arab News.

“If you take a look at the current status of how you can access academic content, books, journals and literature related to that, it’s very cumbersome,” he said.

“You have to be a part of a larger institution, university or organization like the ministry of health, or a place where they can actually afford access to the content. And not all institutions can afford access to all the multiple publishers that are available out there.”

Zendy’s aim is to break down barriers to scholarly discovery by providing individuals with affordable access to the world’s latest research and literature — drawing inspiration from the evolution of music and television consumption.

“The whole idea stemmed from what’s happening to the entertainment and music industry, like Netflix and iTunes, and applying it to academic content, making it affordable,” Kardan said. “So, the whole idea was to open all of that content up and make it affordable, on a monthly subscription or an annual cost.”

ZENDYFACTS

  • Zendy first launched in Jordan in late 2019.
  • Digital library hosts over 120,000 publications.
  • Subscribers in the UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

With a background in publishing at Oxford University Press in the UK, Kardan has made it his mission to promote open access and to help higher education institutions discover new research strategies through various business frameworks. He moved to Dubai 15 years ago to promote scholarly access among universities, businesses and consortiums across the region.

“When I moved in 2006, it was the start of a transition from the print world to electronic,” he said. “Libraries were predominantly shelves full of books and journals and, if you could imagine a researcher who was trying to find something, it was such an effort to go through all these different indexes that you have available.

“To actually find all the relevant information you were looking for was a task of its own.”




Kamran Kardan, Knowledge E founder and CEO. (Supplied)

In the years that followed, Kardan worked with consortiums in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to provide scholarly access on a national level. “Many universities did not have that much access during those days,” he said.

“I remember a university in Kuwait where I had one of the most complete collections of journals from one of the top publishers and going through that transition of moving everything to online — providing more digital libraries to the region was the story of those days.”

Beyond the evolution of digital infrastructure itself, publishing has also had to account for the slow pace of cultural change, with many people continuing to prefer books in paper format for all manner of reasons, including the simple aesthetic of touch and smell.

So far, most of Zendy’s content is only available in English, although some is offered in French and other languages, with the objective of linguistically diversifying further in the near future.

“The idea is to have a comprehensive online library at the fingertips of every single person,” Kardan said. “It is no longer an issue that you can’t afford it, no matter where you’re located, if you’re not part of a larger institution. We don’t target institutions, we target individuals.”




Zendy will seek to streamline the often cumbersome process of accessing academic texts online. (AFP)

After launching in Jordan in 2019, Zendy spread out to the UAE, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Bahrain and, from this month onward, it will be available in Saudi Arabia. The online library has since accumulated thousands of users across the Arab region, hosting over 120,000 publications including more than 30,000 journals and 30,000 e-books.

Zendy also allows users to save searches, export citations and navigate easily according to material type, subject, publication title, language and more.

“You can search, find the article, download the PDF and you can use it as many times as you want,” Kardan said.

“We would like to have more publishers, and this is something that is growing. We have three of the top five publishers in the world and you can imagine that, for publishers that have existing business models with organizations, it is difficult to shift and make everything accessible to all individuals.

“So, it’s also a great step for publishers and that’s why we want to break this barrier.”

To access content, users sign up for a free trial period before choosing between a monthly or annual subscription. Zendy’s business model is based on revenue sharing with publishers based on usage. And, true to Kardan’s ideals, some content will remain free to all.

“There is a portion of free content that will be available in open-access format around the world in a few months’ time,” he said. “So, individuals who are happy with free content can keep that. And then in order to have access to the more premium content, users will need to sign up to Zendy Plus, which is what is currently available.”




Zendy will seek to streamline the often cumbersome process of accessing academic texts online. (AFP)

Kardan hopes Zendy will have a big impact on the countries of the MENA region, playing a role in the creation of diversified, knowledge-based societies and economies. He is confident that providing easy access to information, open to all, is one way of achieving this goal.

“We are also involved in other ways of building that in terms of conducting workshops in academia and building capacity,” he said. “It doesn’t matter how small you are, you can still make a change. In whatever we do as a company, we try to make that change and impact and we think that Zendy is one of those that has the potential to have a global impact.”

Although in its early stages in Saudi Arabia, subscribers include entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals, such as doctors and nurses. Kardan’s goal is to scale up the platform into a global operation in order to allow easier access to content to many more people around the world.

There are also plans to include videos, book summaries and magazines down the line.

“It’s really to increase readership in all of those areas and to shift this literature world online,” he said. “For me, success is to eventually look back and see what impact I was able to have on the people and society around me.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek

Related


London ballet school looks to expand to Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia

Updated 23 June 2021

London ballet school looks to expand to Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia

  • Byers, who has a life-long passion for ballet, founded the academy after “falling in love with Islam” and converting
  • She is passionate about making ballet accessible to girls from impoverished backgrounds

LONDON: A Muslim ballet school in London that uses poetry to accompany dance has set its sights on expanding to countries with large Muslim populations, with “Saudi Arabia definitely on the list.”
Grace & Poise Academy aims to offer ballet to the Muslim community in an artistic way that allows girls to “train professionally within the boundaries of Islam.”
Poetry accompanies ballet movements instead of music and classes are female-only at the school which was established in 2019.
“We are hoping to expand to Muslim-majority countries to make ballet more accessible to the Muslim community, and Saudi Arabia is definitely on the list because of the population there. We’ve also had inquiries from countries such as Malaysia and we want to expand as much as we can,” said founder Maisie Alexandra Byers. 
“When I originally looked at opening the school, I couldn’t find anything that had been done in this way before and that’s why I want to expand internationally,” she added.


Byers, 26, who has a life-long passion for the artistic dance and a degree in ballet education from the Royal Academy of Dance, founded the academy after “falling in love with Islam” and converting to the religion three years ago. 
She set up the school so that she could continue her career in ballet teaching while practicing her newfound faith. Byers also wanted to make the dance “accessible to Muslims and accommodating of their values.” 
“It was an interesting change because I had lived a lifestyle working within ballet that might have been difficult for me to continue. Setting up this company has allowed me to have my professional development as well as pave the way for others to do the same if they are passionate about ballet,” Byers explained.
“I started exploring poetry and working with poetry — we have a ballet poetry syllabus and don’t work with music. For those Muslims who don’t listen to music, that’s fine as we don’t use it and for those who do listen to it then it’s still a unique and beneficial way of working as an artistic approach in its own right,” she said.
Byers said that while a normal syllabus would couple ballet movement with music, using “poetry complements the understanding of that movement development.”


The director writes the poetry herself and “it is written to actually work with the choreography specifically. We play a recording of the poetry, recited by myself, and the girls do the exercises to the poetry. It’s tailored to the movements.
“There are a lot of benefits of ballet in terms of the cognitive engagement with the poetry, also the physical development; you’re gaining posture, alignment, control, stability, coordination. With the poetry, we also have the emotional wellbeing of the child, the expression of telling the story, and the facial element, too. These are fundamental skills.”
Byers is passionate about making ballet accessible to girls from impoverished backgrounds and giving them transferable skills that will help them change their financial circumstances.
“There are a lot of children who can massively benefit holistically from physical, cognitive, emotional and social development through something like ballet but are not given that opportunity mainly because parents are not in a position to fund extracurricular activities outside of school,” she said.


“The big challenge is how to make activities that are beneficial to the Muslim community more accessible in terms of financing and things like that.”
Another challenge that she faces is the lack of value that some people place on the performing arts as opposed to academic subjects such as science and maths.
“Many people haven’t been exposed to ballet for various reasons and may not initially be able to see what the benefits are. Unless you work in education, some of the benefits of ballet may not be obvious, and sometimes there is a big emphasis on STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) rather than creative subjects,” said Byers.
That hasn’t stopped Byers’ academy from flourishing and it operates from four sites across London.
She also works with Islamic schools that offer ballet classes as part of physical education.
“A lot of Islamic schools particularly like what we do because they understand the educational value of ballet. They see the depth of the learning and how it is cross-connected in various ways, and so they really value that on a deeper level, which is what I think we are slowly doing — educating many people about the deeper value,” Byers said.      


Courage at forefront of World Refugee Day mural by Syrian artist

Updated 22 June 2021

Courage at forefront of World Refugee Day mural by Syrian artist

  • Syrian artist Diala Brisly: “It’s very important to show solidarity among refugees”
  • “Courage is having fears, having all this worry, having all this trauma, and still having the energy to keep going”

LONDON: A refugee artist from Syria has created a unique piece of art that captures the spirit and courage of those fleeing war and poverty.
To mark World Refugee Day 2021, which was on Sunday, Diala Brisly created a mural with one key theme: The courage it takes to flee one’s home.
Commissioned by the International Rescue Committee, the piece depicts various people against a backdrop of a bombed city.
Now safe in France, Brisly said her work is about having the “energy to keep going through fear, trauma and upheaval.”
She added that the piece’s message — “refugees are courageous” — captures the essence of what it means to be forcibly uprooted.
“I really like the slogan because it shows strength, regardless of all the troubles that we’re going through,” she said.
The artwork depicts people of various ethnicities and identities, including children, and one man poignantly wearing a life jacket — a staple item of refugee migration across the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere.
“It’s very important to show solidarity among refugees. I believe in solidarity between all people. When we have this struggle in common, and we understand each other’s pain, we’re able to help each other because we share similar experiences,” said Brisly
“The media puts the spotlight on refugees when they’re in the middle of the sea. But it’s very important to understand that the crisis didn’t start in the Mediterranean, it started before,” she added.
“For me, courage is having fears, having all this worry, having all this trauma, and still having the energy to keep going.”
During the revolution against the Assad regime, journalists shared Brisly’s artwork to supplement their reports.
But this exposure, she said, put her life in danger. She fled Syria via Turkey and ended up in France.
Now she uses her talent to create moving works that support the causes she believes in, and runs art therapy workshops for children affected by war.
According to the UN’s refugee agency, nearly 82.4 million people were uprooted in 2020, fleeing war, violence, persecution and human rights abuses.

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India's main beauty pageant holds virtual auditions to embrace 'new normal'

Updated 20 June 2021

India's main beauty pageant holds virtual auditions to embrace 'new normal'

  • Miss Diva 2021 winner will represent India at Miss Universe 2021
  • This year, the pageant's organizers also invite transwomen to participate in the contest

ISLAMABAD: The 2021 edition of India's leading beauty contest, Miss Diva, has opened virtual auditions in what the organizers say is their attempt to adapt to the "new normal," as the country is still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic.

Miss Diva is the beauty pageant that selects India's representatives to Miss Universe. Its ninth edition, LIVA Miss Diva 2021, is organized in association with LIVA, a fashion ingredient brand, and short video platform MX TakaTak.

After the online auditions, 20 shortlisted finalists will undergo training in Mumbai to compete in the grand finale in October.

"Even when the Universe is adapting to a ‘new normal,’ this year too … the show must go on … Miss Diva in its 9th edition, brings you the opportunity to apply for the auditions from the comfort of your home," the organizers said in a statement last week as virtual auditions are underway until July 20.

This year, the organizers have also invited transwomen to participate in the contest.

"Talking of being inclusive, for the first time in the history of beauty pageants fraternity, we encourage and call on Transwomen to participate to redefine beauty," they said.

Miss Diva 2020 winner Kuwait-born Indian model Adline Castelino, who became third runner-up in the recent Miss Universe pageant in Florida, said she was excited about the upcoming competition.

“My crowning moment was extremely emotional, and I feel overwhelmed to think of passing it on to the next Miss Diva Universe," Castelino said in the Miss Diva release.

"I’m also excited about witnessing the entire course of choosing the face of the country, this time from a different outlook and I wish all the luck to the girls aspiring to be LIVA Miss Diva 2021."


What We Are Reading Today: Seeing Serena by Gerald Marzorati

Updated 18 June 2021

What We Are Reading Today: Seeing Serena by Gerald Marzorati

Seeing Serena is an in-depth chronicle of the return to tennis of Serena Williams after giving birth to her daughter, and an insightful cultural analysis of the most consequential female athlete of her time.
It is a riveting chronicle of her turbulent 2019 tour season and a revealing portrait of who she is, both on and off the court.
Author Gerald Marzorati shadows her through her 2019 season, from Melbourne and the Australian Open, to Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, and on to the US Open as she seeks her 24th Grand Slam singles title.
He writes about her tennis and her forays into fashion, investing, and developing her personal brand on social media.
Seeing Serena illuminates Williams’s singular status as the greatest women’s tennis player of all time and — in a moment when race and gender are the most talked-about topics in America and beyond— a pop icon like no other.
Marzorati observes her, listens to her, studies her, explores her roles in society and history— sees Serena fully, in all the ways she has come to matter.


A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

Updated 12 June 2021

A collection of works of female writers of Arab heritage sets out to ‘win hearts, change minds’

  • A spirited new anthology of poems and stories by Arab women down the ages overturns common expectations of gender 
  • ‘We Wrote in Symbols’ celebrates the literary works of 75 female writers of Arab heritage spanning five millenia

DUBAI: British-Palestinian author Selma Dabbagh hopes a new book featuring 75 stories of love and desire penned by Arab women will help pave the way for more female authors to emerge from the Middle East region.

The English-language anthology “We Wrote in Symbols,” edited by Dabbagh, was published in April this year, marking a literary first in showcasing the works of women from the region on subjects many might consider bold.

Spanning several millennia, the volume includes the works of classical poets, award-winning contemporary authors and emerging writers.

“It brings together a diverse range of voices who are writers in English, French and Arabic, coming from all of the three main monotheistic religions, as well as those that are not religious at all,” Dabbagh told Arab News.

‘We Wrote in Symbols’ editor Selma Dabbagh. (Courtesy of Sussana Baker Smith)

The idea arose after Dabbagh stumbled on an anthology called “Classical Poems by Arab Women,” which contained writings from the pre-Islamic period up to the fall of Andalusia in 1492.

The collection left a lasting impression. “Some were what you would expect. There were poems lamenting the loss of a brother in battle,” Dabbagh said.

“But other women were talking about sexuality in a way that was very self-assured. Some were being a bit provocative, but others were just content with that aspect of their life. The voices were surprising, but they also felt fresh, contemporary and spirited.”

Dabbagh began to notice similar themes in the work of contemporary female authors discussing issues of love and desire — in some cases dealing with the disconnection between the two in relationships, which were portrayed with remarkable sensitivity.

As a fiction writer, Dabbagh had always found this a difficult topic to handle, partly due to self-censorship stemming from her own notions of shame.

“There is a universal insistence on associating the actions of a character with the behavior of an author, which we need to be freed from,” she said.

Sabrina Mahfouz. (Courtesy of Greg Morrison)

“To be a writer who is able to depict those delicate shifts in mood and connections between people takes an enormous amount of skill and imagination. So, the collection is basically a combination of the older, classical poets and the newer voices looking at this difficult terrain.

“A lot of them are very funny, some are quite daring and explicit, and it’s just a different way for women identified with the region to have their writing viewed — through matters of the heart and the body.”

Dabbagh said there is an expectation among English readers that most Arab fiction is slightly depressing, political or downbeat. In the words of Nathalie Handal, one of the poets featured in the anthology, “people think Arabs don’t love with a beating heart.” The book aims to challenge this misconception.

“It tries to bring that sense of emotional excitement and tenderness to a vast, diverse and varied region through the writing of women,” Dabbagh said.

Indeed, there is much to celebrate about women in Arab literature, which actually predates anything published by a female author in the English language. One of the earliest poems included in the anthology dates back almost 5,000 years.

“You have this tradition, mainly in poetry, of writing and letter writing by Arab women before women started writing in Europe,” Dabbagh said. “I really wanted to show that, because it’s not something that is associated with the Arab world in terms of having higher levels of advancement in female literacy.”

Hanan Al-Shayk. (Supplied)

For Dabbagh, whose debut novel “Out of It” was nominated as a Guardian book of the year in 2011-12, navigating the affairs of the heart is not something that necessarily becomes easier with age.

Although she read the works of Hanan Al-Shaykh and Ahdaf Soueif avidly in her 20s, she wishes there had been more Arab women writers in her youth. “Sadly, I only read fluently in English,” she said.

“It was really radically life-changing for me to read accounts by women of a similar background. I grew up between the Gulf and Europe mainly, and I always found it such a difficult subject matter for me to find my voice.”

Reading their stories made Dabbagh more articulate about her own feelings.

“It just gives you a set of tools with which to negotiate this tricky emotional terrain,” she said. “I think (my book) might help to provide a level of self-knowledge because there are so many different characters in it that readers should be  able to relate to.”

Having read the works of critically acclaimed American writers, whose brash depiction of the hook-up culture she found dulling, her interest returned to the writings of women of Arab heritage to see how their interpretations of romance, sentimentality, vulnerability and desire affected her.

Laura Hanna. (Supplied)

In these works, she found creativity, humor and craft. “We’re always being told to see these two worlds I come from (the West/Europe and the Arab world) as almost antithetical to one another,” Dabbagh said.

“But with the language of love and looking at the Mediterranean as a kind of sea of stories, we can see how there’s been influence over time between Europe and the Arab world.

“In the 19th century, you had a lot of writers and explorers who came to the Arab world because it was a place of freer sensuality. It seemed to be less restrictive than the puritanical backgrounds these writers came from.

“Now that pattern has, to some extent, been reversed.”

During the Abbasid period, the topic  was written about and seen almost as a scientific study. “You could have a book which dealt with astrology and physics as well as expounding on sensuality, because sensuality and getting that harmony right between a couple was something that was indicative of how you can have harmony in the society as a whole,” Dabbagh said.

Elif Shafak. (Supplied)

“So, it was a way of ensuring that the community was in balance and that, to me, is such a beautiful idea. But it’s something that is rarely associated with the religion anymore.”

Nowadays, any associations between religion, women and sexuality appears to be overwhelmingly negative. “I wanted to show that range, to try to break up that stereotype,” she said.

And although one book is unlikely to change opinions overnight, Dabbagh believes women’s voices are gradually subverting traditional methods of censorship.

“The region has been engulfed with images, films and TV for the past 70 years, and most of it was state-run,” she said. “But now with Netflix and online streaming, we have a lot more content coming in and it’s hugely influential.”

Nevertheless, the depiction of Arabs and the Islamic world in Hollywood has improved little in the past century. “There is a kind of mass absorption of negative images of the region from outside, which is going to influence behavior,” Dabbagh said.

“We need to find ways of writing stories which are connected to regional history, cultures, which are exciting, dramatic, sleek and sexy. It’s just about being trained up, opting into it and starting to influence the way these stories are told.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek