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Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Online Book Clubs Keep Conversations on Arab Literature Alive

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Adabiyat, founded by Alaoui and Lina Barkawi, is a particularly successful Arab-literature focused book club that that launched last summer. Although it doesn’t have an institutional home, Alaoui and Barkawi had experience creating 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 D.C.,” Alaoui said over email. “We started it five years ago to offer local readers an opportunity to read fiction from Arab writers (including diaspora) in their own words. Unfortunately, about two years ago, we both got busy with work and school, and Lina moved to New York, so we had to abandon our baby.”

When they saw the range of virtual events happening in the spring of 2020, they felt inspired to revive the initiative, which now holds a new online book-group meeting roughly once a month. Their members come from around the United States, as well as “Spain, France, the United Arab Emirates, and more!”

In-Person Clubs That Moved Online

Other groups, such as Banipal and MENAWA, have long held discussions in person. The MENAWA book club was founded in 2014 at Lancaster University, in the United Kingdom.

“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 who’s interested. The core group is quite small and is still academic, but we’ve also had general readers from the U.K. and beyond.”

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The Banipal Book Club also had in-person events at the Arab British Centre’s BALMAL library in London, until it moved online in April 2020. Since then, the group has been holding monthly events, largely to discuss Arabic literature in English translation. The Cairo-based writer Riham Adly, who has now been able to attend online sessions, said, “I like the 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 was able to talk and express, even criticize.”

Different Groups, Different Protocols

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

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