June 26, 2022

Online book clubs keep conversations about Arabic literature alive

Adabiyat, founded by Alaoui and Lina Barkawi, is a particularly successful Arabic literature-focused book club that launched last summer. Although there is no institutional home, Alaoui and Barkawi have had the experience of creating a literary community.

“Lina and I used to run an in-person book club focused on literature from the Arab world at the Middle East Books and More bookstore in DC,” Alaoui said via email. “We launched it five years ago to offer local readers the opportunity to read fiction by Arab writers (including from the diaspora) in their own words. Unfortunately, about two years ago, we were both busy with work and school, and Lina moved to New York, so we had to give up our baby.

When they saw the lineup of virtual events unfold in the spring of 2020, they felt inspired to relaunch the initiative, which now hosts a new online reading group meeting about once a month. Their members come from all over the United States, as well as “Spain, France, the United Arab Emirates, and more!”

In-person clubs that have moved online

Other groups, like Banipal and MENAWA, have long had face-to-face discussions. the MENAWA Book Club was founded in 2014 at Lancaster University, UK.

“We usually had about 10 people in person, from all over,” said Lindsey Moore, one of the group’s founders. “We moved online last spring due to Covid-19,” and it’s open to anyone interested. The core group is quite small and remains academic, but we also had general readers from the UK and beyond.

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The Banipal Book Club also held in-person events at the BALMAL Library at the Arab British Center in London, until it went live in April 2020. Since then the group has held monthly events, mainly to discuss Arabic literature in English translation. Cairo-based writer Riham Adly, who has now been able to attend online sessions, said: “I like Zoom book clubs because it allows me to be in the same room with people from all over the world. I met award-winning translators and I was able to speak and express, even criticize.

Different groups, different protocols

Barkawi, from Adabiyat, said the online version of a book club brings in a wider range of perspectives.