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.”


Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel will not revive settlements evacuated in 2005

Updated 22 March 2023

Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel will not revive settlements evacuated in 2005

  • Lawmakers earlier voted to annul part of a law banning Israelis from living in areas of the occupied West Bank the government evacuated in 2005

JERUSALEM: Israel has “no intention” of reviving West Bank settlements evacuated nearly two decades ago, the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday, after a parliamentary vote sparked US ire.
Lawmakers voted Tuesday to annul part of a law banning Israelis from living in areas of the occupied West Bank the government evacuated in 2005.
That year Israel unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip and removed Jewish settlers from the coastal territory, as well as from four settlements in the northern West Bank.
Netanyahu’s office said the parliamentary vote scraps “a discriminatory and humiliating law, that prohibited Jews from living in areas in northern Samaria, which is part of our historic homeland,” using the biblical name for the northern West Bank.
“Having said that, the government has no intention of establishing new communities in these areas,” the statement added.
Netanyahu returned to power in December and vowed to expand settlements across the West Bank, which are deemed illegal under international law.
His assertion that the government will not formally allow settlers to return to the four sites evacuated in 2005 comes after Washington said it was “extremely troubled” by the parliamentary vote.
“The legislative changes announced today are particularly provocative,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters Tuesday.
Patel said the move was in “clear contradiction” of promises made by prime minister Ariel Sharon to US president George W. Bush, as well as assurances given just two days ago by the Netanyahu administration.
The decision by lawmakers was heralded by Israel’s settler movement which has made one of the sites — Homesh — a symbol of their cause.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, himself a far-right settler, tweeted that it marked a step toward regularizing the Israeli presence at Homesh.
A small group of activists returned to the site in 2009 and set up a Jewish seminary, which was cleared repeatedly by Israeli troops before the military eventually allowed them to stay.


Tear gas, clashes as Lebanon protesters try to storm government HQ

Updated 22 March 2023

Tear gas, clashes as Lebanon protesters try to storm government HQ

  • The retired soldiers demanding better pay were clashing with riot police and troops

BEIRUT: Lebanese security forces fired tear gas on Wednesday to disperse hundreds of protesters, mainly retired soldiers, who tried to break through the fence leading to the government headquarters in downtown Beirut.
The violence came amid widespread anger over the harsh economic conditions in the country, where mismanagement by the ruling class has been rampant for years, preceding the economic meltdown that started in late 2019.
The retired soldiers demanding better pay were clashing with riot police and troops. Several people suffered breathing problems from the tear gas. The protesters hurled stones at the officers protecting the government headquarters and repeatedly tried to break through the fence.
The Lebanese pound hit a new low on Tuesday, selling for more than 143,000 pounds to the dollar before making some gains. The pound has lost more than 96 percent of its value over the past three years.
“My monthly salary is $40. How can I survive,” screamed a retired army officer.
Lebanon, a small Mediterranean nation of 6 million people, is in the grips of the worst economic and financial crisis in its modern history, rooted in decades of corruption and mismanagement by a political class that has ruled the country since the end of the 1975-90 civil war.
The political class has also resisted the implementation of reforms demanded by the international community. Since the economic meltdown began, three-quarters of the population, which includes 1 million Syrian refugees, now lives in poverty and inflation is soaring.
Lebanon has also stalled on reforms agreed to with the International Monetary Fund to enable access to $3 billion in a bailout package and unlock funds in development aid to make the economy viable again.

Building collapse in Qatar’s capital kills 1, search ongoing

Updated 22 March 2023

Building collapse in Qatar’s capital kills 1, search ongoing

DOHA: A building collapsed Wednesday in Qatar’s capital, killing at least one person as searchers clawed through the rubble to check for survivors, authorities said.
Qatar’s Interior Ministry described the building as a four-story structure in Doha’s Bin Durham neighborhood. It said rescuers found seven survivors, while the one person killed had been inside the building at the time of the collapse.
Authorities offered no immediate explanation for the building’s collapse. Online video showed car alarms sounding after the collapse, with one part of the building falling into another nearby.
Civil defense and police surrounded the site after the 8 a.m. collapse, with multiple ambulances and an excavator at the scene. Residents were asked to evacuate for their safety.
Qatar hosted the FIFA World Cup last year.


Pro-Kurdish party gives tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in Turkey polls

Updated 22 March 2023

Pro-Kurdish party gives tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in Turkey polls

  • Peoples’ Democratic Party decision reduces the possibility of a damaging split of the anti-Erdogan vote
  • Boosts the chances of the opposition alliance’s joint candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu

ISTANBUL: Turkiye’s main pro-Kurdish party said Wednesday it would not field a presidential candidate in May elections, giving tacit support to Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s rival in the crucial vote.
The decision by the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) reduces the possibility of a damaging split of the anti-Erdogan vote, boosting the chances of the opposition alliance’s joint candidate, Kemal Kilicdaroglu.
Winning more than 10 percent of the vote in the past three national elections, the HDP was widely seen as a kingmaker in the tightly contested race.
“We will not field a candidate in the presidential elections,” Pervin Buldan, the party co-chairwoman, told reporters.
“We will fulfil our historic responsibility to end one-man rule in the coming elections,” she said, condemning Erdogan’s consolidation of power over his two decades as prime minister and president.
The HDP’s decision strips Erdogan of a key voting bloc in what is widely seen as Turkiye’s most important election of its post-Ottoman history.
Erdogan enjoyed some support from Kurdish voters earlier in his rule.
His government once worked with HDP politicians in an effort to put an end to a decades-long fight by Kurdish insurgents for an independent state that has claimed tens of thousands of lives.
But he now accuses the HDP — parliament’s third largest party — of being the political wing of the PKK militants.
The leftist party denies the charges and says it is being singled out for its fierce criticism of the government’s social and economic policies.
Erdogan and his far-right allies in parliament are now trying to dissolve the HDP over its alleged terror ties.
Turkiye’s Constitutional Court on Wednesday rejected the HDP’s request to delay the outcome of the case until after the May 14 election.
The HDP was excluded from a six-party opposition alliance that has rallied around Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy.
The anti-Erdogan alliance includes staunchly nationalist parties that refuse to work with the HDP.
Meeting with HDP leaders on Monday, Kilicdaroglu promised to remove restrictions on the Kurdish language and address other Kurdish concerns.

Kurds remain biggest winners from US-led invasion of Iraq

Updated 22 March 2023

Kurds remain biggest winners from US-led invasion of Iraq

  • Irbil, the seat of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq, was once a backwater provincial capital
  • That rapidly changed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein

IRBIL, Iraq: Complexes of McMansions, fast food restaurants, real estate offices and half-constructed high-rises line wide highways in Irbil, the seat of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq.
Many members of the political and business elite live in a suburban gated community dubbed the American Village, where homes sell for as much as $5 million, with lush gardens consuming more than a million liters of water a day in the summer.
The visible opulence is a far cry from 20 years ago. Back then, Irbil was a backwater provincial capital without even an airport.
That rapidly changed after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein. Analysts say that Iraqi Kurds – and particularly the Kurdish political class – were the biggest beneficiaries in a conflict that had few winners.
That’s despite the fact that for ordinary Kurds, the benefits of the new order have been tempered by corruption and power struggles between the two major Kurdish parties and between Irbil and Baghdad, the Iraqi capital.
In the wake of the invasion, much of Iraq fell into chaos, as occupying American forces fought an insurgency and as multiple political and sectarian communities vied to fill the power vacuum left in Baghdad. But the Kurds, seen as staunch allies of the Americans, strengthened their political position and courted foreign investments.
Irbil quickly grew into an oil-fueled boom town. Two years later, in 2005, the city opened a new commercial airport, constructed with Turkish funds, and followed a few years after that by an expanded international airport.
Traditionally, the “Kurdish narrative is one of victimhood and one of grievances,” said Bilal Wahab, a fellow at the Washington Institute think tank. But in Iraq since 2003, “that is not the Kurdish story. The story is one of power and empowerment.”
With the Ottoman Empire’s collapse after World War I, the Kurds were promised an independent homeland in the 1920 Treaty of Sevres. But the treaty was never ratified, and “Kurdistan” was carved up. Since then, there have been Kurdish rebellions in Iran, Iraq and Turkey, while in Syria, Kurds have clashed with Turkish-backed forces.
In Iraq, the Kurdish region won de facto self-rule in 1991, when the United States imposed a no-fly zone over it in response to Saddam’s brutal repression of Kurdish uprisings.
“We had built our own institutions, the parliament, the government,” said Hoshyar Zebari, a top official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party who served as foreign minister in Iraq’s first post-Saddam government. “Also, we had our own civil war. But we overcame that,” he said, referring to fighting between rival Kurdish factions in the mid-1990s.
Speaking in an interview at his palatial home in Masif, a former resort town in the mountains above Irbil that is now home to much of the KDP leadership, Zabari added, “The regime change in Baghdad has brought a lot of benefits to this region.”
Iraqi President Abdul Latif Rashid, from the rival Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, also gave a glowing assessment of the post-2003 developments. The Kurds, he said, had aimed for “a democratic Iraq, and at the same time some sort of … self-determination for the Kurdish people.”
With the US overthrow of Saddam, he said, “We achieved that ... We became a strong group in Baghdad.”
The post-invasion constitution codified the Kurdish region’s semi-independent status, while an informal power-sharing arrangement now stipulates that Iraq’s president is always a Kurd, the prime minister a Shiite and the parliament speaker a Sunni.
But even in the Kurdish region, the legacy of the invasion is complicated. The two major Kurdish parties have jockeyed for power, while Irbil and Baghdad have been at odds over territory and the sharing of oil revenues.
Meanwhile, Arabs in the Kurdish region and minorities, including the Turkmen and Yazidis, feel sidelined in the new order, as do Kurds without ties to one of the two key parties that serve as gatekeepers to opportunities in the Kurdish region.
As the economic boom has stagnated in recent years, due to both domestic issues and global economic trends, an increasing number of Kurdish youths are leaving the country in search of better opportunities. According to the International Labor Organization, 19.2 percent of men and 38 percent of women aged 15-24 were unemployed and out of school in Irbil province in 2021.
Wahab said Irbil’s post-2003 economic success has also been qualified by widespread waste and patronage in the public sector.
“The corruption in the system is really undermining the potential,” he said.
In Kirkuk, an oil-rich city inhabited by a mixed population of Kurds, Turkmen and Sunni Arabs where Baghdad and Irbil have vied for control, Kahtan Vendavi, local head of the Iraqi Turkmen Front party, complained that the American forces’ “support was very clear for the Kurdish parties” after the 2003 invasion.
Turkmen are the third largest ethnic group in Iraq, with an estimated 3 million people, but hold no high government positions and only a handful of parliamentary seats.
In Kirkuk, the Americans “appointed a governor of Kurdish nationality to manage the province. Important departments and security agencies were handed over to Kurdish parties,” Vendavi said.
Some Kurdish groups also lost out in the post-2003 order, which consolidated the power of the two major parties.
Ali Bapir, head of the Kurdistan Justice Group, a Kurdish Islamist party, said the two ruling parties “treat people who do not belong to (them) as third- and fourth-class citizens.”
Bapir has other reasons to resent the US incursion. Although he had fought against the rule of Saddam’s Baath Party, the US forces who arrived in 2003 accused him and his party of ties to extremist groups. Soon after the invasion, the US bombed his party’s compound and then arrested Bapir and imprisoned him for two years.
Kurds not involved in the political sphere have other, mainly economic, concerns.
Picnicking with her mother and sister and a pair of friends at the sprawling Sami Abdul Rahman Park, built on what was once a military base under Saddam, 40-year-old Tara Chalabi acknowledged that the “security and safety situation is excellent here.”
But she ticked off a list of other grievances, including high unemployment, the end of subsidies from the regional government for heating fuel and frequent delays and cuts in the salaries of public employees like her.
“Now there is uncertainty if they will pay this month,” she said.
Nearby, a group of university students said they are hoping to emigrate.
“Working hard, before, was enough for you to succeed in life,” said a 22-year-old who gave only her first name, Gala. “If you studied well and you got good grades … you would have a good opportunity, a good job. But now it’s very different. You must have connections.”
In 2021, hundreds of Iraqi Kurds rushed to Belarus in hopes of crossing into Poland or other neighboring EU countries. Belarus at the time was readily handing out tourist visas in an apparent attempt to pressure the European Union by creating a wave of migrants.
Those who went, Wahab said, were from the middle class, able to afford plane tickets and smuggler fees.
“To me, it’s a sign that it’s not about poverty,” he said. “It’s basically about the younger generation of Kurds who don’t really see a future for themselves in this region anymore.”