How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature

Regional book-related events such as the Kuwait International Book Fair and the Riyadh International Book Fair continue to attract large crowds. (AFP)
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Updated 07 January 2023

How e-books and audiobooks are expanding options for consuming Arabic literature

  • While many Arab readers prefer the printed book, others say ebooks and audiobooks save time, space and money
  • Growth of digital-literature market evident in production of 8,000 Arabic-language audiobooks in 2022 alone

DUBAI: As technology advances, bookworms are finding more options to consume literature than just through the printed word. Though e-books in Arabic are far fewer in number than those in English, publishers and translators are working to bridge the gap.

In 2018, Amazon announced Arabic-language support for the Kindle e-reader, opening the door of literature to a much larger audience.

From novels to self-help books, biographies to poetry and more, an increasing number of Arabs are finding affordable means to gain knowledge in e-books and audiobooks. Yet, reading a printed book is still the most favored option for the vast majority.

“Honestly, I don’t think there is a problem of reading books in the Arab region as some might think, as much as there is a problem in selling books,” Salah Chebaro, CEO of Beirut-based Neelwafurat, told Arab News.

Neelwafurat, one of the biggest online bookstores in the Arab world, is a word merging the two Arabic names of the Nile and Euphrates rivers.

The bookstore sells printed books from Arab publishers to different cities around the world. It boasts a stock of 15,000 e-books for sale that can be read through the iKitab application, as well as 800,000 printed books.

While printed Arabic-language books continue to be far more popular than e-book equivalents, sales of the latter are slowly growing, in part as a result of the rising prices of printed volumes. (SPA)

“When you look at the number of the pirated books that were downloaded, they are in the millions,” Chebaro said in an online interview from the Lebanese capital. “People like to read, but they don’t like to pay to read.”  

However, “the predicament for publishers, distributors and bookshops in the Arab world … is in shipping (books) and other logistics related to the geography of the Arab region.”

For instance, the cost of shipping a consignment of printed books weighing a total of 2 kilograms from New York to Los Angeles in the US is roughly the same as, say, sending it from Cairo to Amman.

This is because of the geographical distribution of the Arab region, which makes transportation, shipping, exporting and importing more complicated and expensive, Chebaro said.

Saving on shipping costs is among the main factors behind the increasing popularity of e-books in the Arab region. Other factors include saving the space needed to store and carry around print books, as well as the speed of buying a book online, which can be finalized in the blink of an eye.

While some continue to maintain their preference for the printed word, reading on gadgets has many advantages. Yemeni-British Dhuha Awad, a creativity facilitator based in Dubai, says she likes the dictionary function in digital English books.

“I can type the word I am looking for, and the gadget will display all the lines that have that word (in the digital book). Also, I don’t need to carry the book I am reading with me all the time,” Awad told Arab News.

Her library consists of roughly equal numbers of digital and printed books, and she uses the e-book format to further save time and physical space. “If I like a certain book and want others to read it, I make sure I have it in paper. But if I am not sure, I will buy the digital format first,” she said.


• Global e-book revenues surpassed $16.1bn in 2021 and could reach $18.7bn by 2026. 

• The number of e-book readers worldwide is expected to breach 1.1bn by 2027.

• Sales of e-books constitute around 10% of overall book sales, according to publishers.

• In 2018, Amazon announced Arabic-language support for the Kindle e-reader.

The growth in the e-books market in the Arab region is led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, Ali Abdel Moneim Ahmed, digital publishing consultant with Liberty Education in the UK, Egypt, and UAE, said during a panel discussion at the Sharjah Publishers Conference on the sidelines of the 2022 edition of the UAE’s Sharjah International Book Fair, held every November.

More and more publishers are offering online platforms with their books having digital versions, Ahmed said. Publishers are also collaborating with audio-ready platforms, such as Storytel and Audible.

E-book sales of classic books in the markets of the three aforementioned Arab countries have “increased by 14 percent (in 2021),” Ahmed said. “This is apart from the online publications, which have increased by 50 percent.”

Despite the increasing sales of e-books, there is still room for even more growth. Sales of e-books constitute around 10 percent of overall book sales, according to publishers. 

“It is a promising (field) … and it is increasing every year. But we haven’t yet reached the percentages of Europe and the US, where nearly 30 percent of books sales are e-books,” Chebaro told Arab News.

Global e-books sales are massive, despite figures varying among different sources and websites.

According to WordsRated, a US-based non-commercial research organization, global e-book revenues in 2021 reached over $16.1 billion, and is expected to cross the $18.7 billion mark by 2026.

Statista, another US-based market and consumer data provider, expects the e-books segment to reach $13.6 billion in 2022, with an anticipated annual growth rate of 3.38 percent, reaching over $16 billion by 2027.

Saudi Arabia tops the list of buyers and readers for both digital and printed books in the Arab world. (SPA)

The number of e-book readers is expected to reach over 1.1 billion by 2027, with most of the revenues expected to be generated by the US. The country is the largest book market in the world, with its revenues estimated in billions of dollars.

Nearly one million books are being published yearly in the US, in addition to four million self-published books annually.

By comparison, the Arab book market’s revenue ranges between $100 and $150 million. Only a million books have been published in the Arab region in the past five decades, according to data shared by Chebaro with Arab News.

Figures on publishing in the Arab world are related to many socio-economic factors, chief among them individual income. 

“Today, (the rate of) pirated books in the Gulf region is less than other countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq. Pirated books are a big problem and (are) connected to an individual’s income,” Chebaro told Arab News. 

“We have a long way to go … (but) overall, sales of paper books are increasing, as well as the sales of e-books. None of them is taking the place of another. Each has a market and each has its customers and readers.”

Saudi Arabia tops the list of buyers and readers for both digital and printed books in the Arab world. It is followed by Kuwait, the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Algeria, according to Chebaro.

Fiction, self-esteem and mental health, and biographies top the list of subjects of interest to Arab readers, Doha Al-Refai, publishing manager at the Rufoof digital bookstore, told Arab News from Amman in Jordan.

The store, which offers 25,000 Arabic titles for a monthly subscription fee, acts like a sort of online library — not selling digital or print copies of books, but rather allowing readers to read books on their website.

“We don’t distribute or sell books for readers. We distribute for the publisher,” Al-Refai told Arab News.

Rufoof has “solved a problem for a wide spectrum of readers, where people don’t have to buy books, whether paper or digital, but can read as much as they want throughout the whole month.”

Saudis, Emiratis and Egyptians are among Rufoof’s top clients. While Egyptians are among the most voracious readers, the number of subscribers in the Gulf states are also high, Al-Refai said, adding that the website has plans to expand into audiobooks. 

Audiobooks are a promising field with big potential, according to many publishers. Chebaro and Al-Refai said that the Arab region produced nearly 8,000 audiobooks in 2021, with Al-Refai adding that Rufoof accounted for 5,000 so far.

Egyptian author Amr Hussein says the digital format has helped increase access to literature for those who are unable to afford the increasing prices of books.

“Arabs living in different places, such as Australia, Europe, and other cities far from the Arab region, find it difficult to get Arabic books,” Hussein, who lives in Dubai, told Arab News.

“Distributing books through digital formats provides people anywhere in the world the chance to read books as they are published in the Arab region.”

He said, personally, he prefers audiobooks as he can listen to them while stuck in traffic or in a plane.

Many readers and writers will likely agree with Purva Grover, a Dubai-based writer from India with three e-books under her belt, who told Arab News via email: “The more books we have (in any format) in the world, be it e-books or print, the brighter the future.

“Reading is more about sharing now — I read a good paragraph and I want to instantly screenshot it and send it to my friends, put it up on my social accounts or tag friends — so e-books help us do it all, and hence encourage and spread the word of reading in this tech-friendly era.”


Unclear if ‘pirates’ threatened Turkiye ship crew: Italy media

Updated 57 min 34 sec ago

Unclear if ‘pirates’ threatened Turkiye ship crew: Italy media

  • The ship, Galata Seaways sailing under a Turkish flag, was then escorted to Naples, where Italian investigators were questioning the crew and others aboard
  • Interviews with the crew have so far not backed up that version of events, according to Italian med

ROME: The crew of a cargo ship boarded by Italian special forces may not have been threatened by knife-wielding “pirates” as initially reported, Italian media said on Saturday.
On Friday, Italy’s defense minister said marines had dropped onto a vessel off the nation’s coast after reports that that “stowaways” used knives to threaten the crew.
The ship, Galata Seaways sailing under a Turkish flag, was then escorted to Naples, where Italian investigators were questioning the crew and others aboard.
According to Friday media reports and statements from the defense ministry, the ship captain radioed for help after knife-wielding migrants, who had secretly boarded the vessel hoping to reach Europe and were discovered by the crew, tried to take some of the crew hostage.
But interviews with the crew have so far not backed up that version of events, according to Italian media on Saturday.
The captain has told investigators that he alerted the authorities after he saw two men with knives try to enter the ship’s machine section and, failing to do so, then rejoined the other stowaways, according to reports by ANSA news agency and La Repubblica daily.
“For the moment, it is not clear what the clandestine passengers wanted to do with the knives,” La Repubblica said, citing “informed sources.”
“Thus it is not clear whether there was a diversion attempt or not,” La Reppublica wrote, adding that no-one has yet been charged with piracy over the incident.
The three migrants who were found to have knives on them have been charged with arms possession, but have not been jailed, according to ANSA.
The 15 stowaways came from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Four of them — two men and two women — have been hospitalized, according to ANSA.
One of the women is pregnant, the other is weak, one of the men could have a fractured ankle, and the other is suffering from hypothermia.
“When we were discovered, we were afraid that we’d be arrested and repatriated,” ANSA quoted one of them telling investigators.
The Galata Seaways is a roll-on roll-off cargo ship designed to carry vehicles and was sailing under a Turkish flag with reportedly 22 crew members.
It set off from Topcular in Turkiye on June 7 and was headed for Sete in southern France.
Scores of people fleeing war and poverty in Asia, Middle East and Africa try to enter European Union countries each year.

Iran police kill 9-year-old, caught in crossfire, after his father stole a car

Updated 10 June 2023

Iran police kill 9-year-old, caught in crossfire, after his father stole a car

  • Boy’s photo was shared on social media, with people expressing sorrow for his death

Dubai: A boy was shot and killed by police after his father stole a car in the southwestern Khuzestan province and drove off with him, Iranian authorities said.
Ruhollah Bigdeli, chief of police in Shushtar County, said — via Iran’s official police website — that officers tried to stop the “stolen vehicle by shooting at it,” but the boy was caught in the crossfire and died on the spot.
Police said they issued the man several warnings before they started shooting, adding that he had a criminal record, including car theft and drug smuggling.
The Iranian Jamaran news website identified the boy as 9-year-old Morteza Delf Zaregani. They spoke to the father who accused the police of not issuing any warning before shooting.
Morteza’s photo was shared on social media, with people expressing sorrow for his death.
In November, 9-year-old Kian Pirfalak, was killed in a shooting that his mother blamed on security forces.
Pirfalak was shot and killed while passing with his parents through a street in the southwestern city of Izeh, in Khuzestan province, filled with demonstrators, during nationwide protests following the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini after her arrest by the country’s morality police.

Turkiye investigates fatal explosion at munitions factory which killed 5

Updated 9 min 35 sec ago

Turkiye investigates fatal explosion at munitions factory which killed 5

  • Investigation launched into cause of explosion

ANKARA: Five people were killed in an explosion at a military factory in Ankara’s Elmadag district early on Saturday. 

The bodies of the victims have been recovered and judicial and administrative investigations into the cause of the explosion are underway. Vasip Sahin, the governor of Ankara province, said initial investigations suggest the blast was caused by a chemical reaction. 

According to the Turkish Ministry of Defense, the explosion occurred in the manufacturing unit of the Machinery and Chemical Industry Corporation (MKE), a subsidiary of the ministry. 

Fatal accidents have previously occurred at the factory, which produces rockets and explosives for the defense and interior ministries.

In 2018, Health and Safety Labor Watch (ISIG), a civil watchdog, issued a report about workplace fatalities at the factory after an explosion on May 24 that year left one worker dead and six others injured. The official investigation blamed the explosion on a technical fault, ruling out sabotage. ISIG criticized the factory for not having sufficient workplace security measures in place. 

On May 20, 2013, an explosion at the factory left two workers dead. 

Petrol-Is, Turkiye’s petroleum, chemical and rubber workers union, has long demanded improved working conditions at the same factory. Workers staged a three-day strike in November 2012 to draw the government’s attention to the situation.

In July 2013, Petrol-Is claimed there were serious issues with the factory, that its technological infrastructure had not been modernized, and that more explosions could occur. Work at the factory was temporarily halted at that time so improvements could be made. 

Latest Sudan truce begins amid civilian skepticism

Updated 10 June 2023

Latest Sudan truce begins amid civilian skepticism

  • Civilians trapped in the battlegrounds are desperate for relief from the bloodshed

KHARTOUM: A 24-hour cease-fire took effect Saturday between Sudan’s warring generals but, with fears running high it will collapse like its predecessors, US and Saudi mediators warn they may break off mediation efforts.
With the fighting now about to enter a third month, civilians trapped in the battlegrounds in greater Khartoum and the flashpoint western region of Darfur are desperate for relief from the bloodshed but deeply skeptical about the sincerity of the generals.
Multiple truces have been agreed and broken since fighting erupted on April 15, and Washington had slapped sanctions on both rival generals after the last attempt collapsed at the end of May.
The nationwide truce announced by US and Saudi mediators on Friday took effect at 6:00 a.m.
“Should the parties fail to observe the 24-hour cease-fire, facilitators will be compelled to consider adjourning” talks in the Saudi city of Jeddah which have been suspended since late last month, the mediators said.
Civilians voiced disappointment that the promised cease-fire was so limited in scope.
“A one-day truce is much less than we aspire for,” said Khartoum North resident Mahmud Bashir. “We look forward to an end to this damned war.”
Issam Mohamed Omar said he wanted an agreement that required fighters of the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who had occupied his home in Khartoum to leave so that he can return there from his temporary lodgings across the Nile in Omdurman.
“For me, a truce that doesn’t kick the RSF out of the home they kicked (me) out of three weeks ago, doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said.
Sudan specialist Aly Verjee said he saw little reason why this truce should be honored any more than its predecessors.
“Unfortunately, the incentives have not changed for either party, so it’s hard to see that a truce with the same underlying assumptions, especially one of such short duration, will see a substantially different result, said Verjee, a researcher at Sweden’s University of Gothenburg.
Upwards of 1,800 people have been killed in the fighting, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project.
Nearly two million people have been displaced, including 476,000 who have sought refuge in neighboring countries, the United Nations says.
The Saudi and US mediators said they “share the frustration of the Sudanese people about the uneven implementation of previous cease-fires.”
The army, led by Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan, said it has “agreed to the proposal,” adding in a statement it “declares its commitment to the cease-fire.”
The paramilitary RSF, commanded by Burhan’s former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, said: “We affirm our full commitment to the cease-fire.”
Both statements said the truce could support humanitarian efforts, while cautioning against violations by their opponents.
“If observed, the 24-hour cease-fire will provide an important opportunity... for the parties to undertake confidence-building measures which could permit resumption of the Jeddah talks,” the US-Saudi statement said.
Friday’s announcement came a day after Sudanese authorities loyal to Burhan declared UN envoy Volker Perthes “persona non grata,” accusing him of taking sides.
UN chief Antonio Guterres later expressed support for Perthes, who is currently in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for a series of talks.
Speaking through his spokesman, Guterres said “the doctrine of persona non grata is not applicable to or in respect of United Nations personnel” and is contrary to Khartoum’s obligations under the UN charter.
The fighting has sidelined Perthes’s efforts to revive Sudan’s transition to civilian rule, which was derailed by a 2021 coup by the two generals before they fell out.
It has also complicated the coordination of international efforts to deliver emergency relief to the 25 million civilians that the United Nations estimates are in need.
Alfonso Verdu Perez, outgoing head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Sudan, warned on Friday that “health care may collapse at any moment.”
“The needs are immense and much more remains to be done” in both Khartoum and Darfur, he told reporters in Geneva.

Palestinian president to visit China next week

Updated 09 June 2023

Palestinian president to visit China next week

  • China has expressed readiness to facilitate Israeli-Palestinian talks
  • Beijing has recently positioned itself as a mediator in the Middle East

BEIJING: Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas will make a state visit to China next week, Beijing said Friday, after China expressed readiness to help facilitate Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Beijing has positioned itself as a mediator in the Middle East, brokering the restoration of ties in March between Iran and Saudi Arabia in a region where the United States has for decades been the main powerbroker.

“At the invitation of President Xi Jinping, president of the state of Palestine Mahmud Abbas will pay a state visit to China from June 13 to 16,” foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Friday.

“He is the first Arab head of state received by China this year, fully embodying the high level of China-Palestine good relations, which have traditionally been friendly,” ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told a regular briefing later.

Abbas is an “old and good friend of the Chinese people,” he added.

“China has always firmly supported the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore their legitimate national rights.”

Beijing has sought to boost its ties to the Middle East, challenging long-standing US influence there — efforts that have drawn rebukes from Washington.

Xi last December visited Saudi Arabia on an Arab outreach visit that also saw him meet with Abbas and pledge to “work for an early, just and durable solution to the Palestinian issue.”

And during a trip to Riyadh this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Saudi Arabia was not being forced to choose between Washington and Beijing, striking a conciliatory tone following tensions with the long-time ally.

Blinken has also this week sought to mediate Israel-Palestinian tension, urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu not to undermine prospects for a Palestinian state.

Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have been stalled since 2014.

In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang told his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts that his country was willing to aid peace negotiations, Xinhua reported.

And Qin told Palestinian foreign minister Riyad Al-Maliki that Beijing supports the resumption of talks as soon as possible, according to the state news agency.

In both calls Qin emphasised China’s push for peace talks on the basis of implementing a “two-state solution.”

“The Palestinian issue is the core of the Middle East issue. It bears on peace and stability in the Middle East and on international fairness and justice.”