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Motivated to discover their own potential and voice, independent of the prevailing social and political norms, Gulf youth have been establishing reading clubs at a rapid pace. On their face, these initiatives might look like typical intellectual activities. However, considering the Gulf social context, the particular goals and activities on which these initiatives focus, and the strategies they adopt in their work, the reading clubs established by Gulf youth seem to be more than intellectual spheres where people of similar interests get together and discuss books and articles. They try to spot social issues and discover solutions by holding conferences, participating in book fairs, and organizing trips to different parts of the world where they enable themselves to discuss issues beyond their social and cultural settings.
Like many youth initiatives in the Gulf, these reading clubs are volunteer projects. Young people lead the initiatives, devoting significant time and effort to planning and organizing events, maintaining their quality, and developing outreach all without pay. The financial costs of running these initiatives are often borne by the participants themselves through membership fees, or through their efforts to identify sponsors for big events.
AGSIW spoke to founders of reading clubs in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia to bring to light the activities of these initiatives, as well as the implications and impacts of such phenomena.
Abdulaziz Alawadhi and Razan Almershed from Huroof Cultural Center in Kuwait, a nonprofit that organizes intellect- and literature-focused activities; Ahmed Tabaaji, a Saudi who has participated in reading clubs across Saudi Arabia, namely Mujtamaai (My Society) and Asdeqaa Alqeraah (Reading Friends); and Nourah Al-Ohali and Hamza Nadi, a former and current member of the King Saud University (KSU) Reading Club, which is affiliated with UNESCO, all shared their insights and experiences.
Social Contribution and Change
A shared characteristic of these reading clubs is their motivation for social change. The Huroof Cultural Center, which “uses knowledge as a mean to improve the society,” has been holding intellectual forums on “The Elite,” a topic that will be its focus for at least six months. Abdulaziz Alawadhi from Huroof explained the reason for choosing this subject: “In Kuwait, many of the elite influential individuals are without an area of specialty. There is a huge number of people who highly influence the public, yet they make zero contribution to the society because their fame is not based on particular expertise. This is historically unheard of in our view; usually, people are experts or at least specialized in something and then they go public and start to be influential in the society. It is important for us to try to understand this phenomenon.”
Abdulaziz distinguished Huroof’s mission from other reading clubs or intellectual centers: “We figured out that the intellectual environment in Kuwait lacks systematic and methodological function. Most of the intellectual initiatives host events based on trending topics or available speakers at the time. They do not have a clear goal and vision within which they work. This was what we wanted to avoid. We wanted to have a specified methodology. Therefore, we have designed a program where we can sufficiently address topics. For example, for the Elite topic, our plan has been to tackle the Elite-politics relations, the Elite-law relations, the Elite in relationship to media, history, development, and reformation. After we are done with holding the discussion events, we plan to publish the discussions’ outcome in a small book, so people can have this issue addressed in one easily-accessed resource. We believe this would make change.”
Hamza Nadi from KSU Reading Club highlighted its goal to make books available for low prices for college students through the book recycling project. Hamza explained, “The initiative of book recycling allows the student who finishes reading a certain book to give it away in exchange for another book, or group of books. We had a booth in the Riyadh book fair, which we were part of for multiple years, where we presented this project and made it open to the public for participation. We managed to recycle 10,500 books in the 2016 Riyadh International Book Fair, which was part of the 40,000 recycled books since the establishment of our book club.”
While some of the reading clubs focus on the public interest, others target the betterment of their participants. “Our main goal is to have the books we read reflect on our way of thinking and behavior. That is why we try to deeply understand the thoughts in the books assigned for reading and discussion. The interaction between team members in book discussions does help in building our self-esteem as well,” said Ahmed Tabaaji about Mujtamaai reading club in Jeddah.
Forging Discussions Across the Gulf, and Beyond
Reading clubs vary in activities and organization. Mujtamaai reading club focuses on book discussions. Its members try to consult intellectuals and media figures when choosing their books. At times, they hold public meetings for people outside the reading club to join and participate.
Other reading clubs like Asdeqaa Alqeraah hold online book discussions alongside the regular ones. Ahmed Tabaaji explained, “The reading club Twitter account would announce a particular book for reading, and a date and time for discussing the book. Assigned team members would lead the discussion on Twitter and reply to people’s comments and questions.” He continued, “Asdeqaa Alqeraah has established Qawaree, the first e-magazine in the Arab world that focuses on reading.”
Huroof has gone beyond holding book discussions and participating in book fairs. It organized the first Reading Conference, sponsored by the prime minister of Kuwait, hosting about 20 prominent intellectuals and writers from across the Middle East North Africa region. They spoke about the concept of reading, the role a reader plays in the society, translation and issues of text interpretation, and the interaction between media and the intellectual environment. The conference also aimed to build networks between the youth initiatives that focus on intellectual activities, by inviting a group of reading clubs active in the Gulf states. Although Huroof’s team consists of only seven people, the conference was successful and attracted 500 participants.
The Saudi KSU Reading Club was one of the book clubs that participated in the Reading Conference organized by Huroof, which offered a means to network and collaborate with other book clubs in the region. “One of the nicest opportunities that I got when I was a team member of KSU Reading Club was to participate in the first Reading Conference in Kuwait. Beside the qualitative content of the conference, it was a great opportunity to meet young individuals across the Gulf, who are working on intellectual projects that contribute to creating a new dynamic movement,” said Nourah Al-Ohali.
Huroof does not only hold intellectual events, but also organizes “external intellectual trips.” According to Abdulaziz and Razan Almershed: “The idea of organizing external trips aims to expand our exposure to different cultures, especially in countries with ethnic and racial diversity. We have organized trips to Greece, Spain, Turkey, and Bosnia and will be having a trip to India in January 2017. The goals of the trips are either to simply explore the social and cultural structure of the country, or to meet with intellectuals and academics in the country that we visit, in a way where we combine entertainment and knowledge.” Providing an example Abdulaziz stated, “When we went to Bosnia, two guests accompanied us throughout the trip: Algerian philosophy professor Al-Zawawi Baghourah and Lebanese music composer Marcel Khalife. The topics that were addressed during the trip were language and its effect on shaping perceptions in different parts of the world; war and questions of justice; ethics and art in war; and freedom in societies in conflict and its relationship to art.”
Meeting the Challenges of the Intellectual Environment
While the reading clubs presented successful projects and activities, they also expressed concerns and challenges. Hamza highlighted funding as the biggest challenge KSU Reading Club encounters. According to Ahmed: “The main problem that might be encountered by reading clubs and volunteering initiatives in general, is related to sustainability. Having the book club established and run by individuals and not by an institution makes it challenging to have sustainable activities. Life events occur to these individuals as time passes, and most of them reach the point where they cannot afford the time for this volunteer work.” Echoing the same concern, Abdulaziz stressed Huroof’s long-term vision: “We hope that at some point we are able to establish Huroof as a real institution, with a physical office and independent resources, where team members can be employees.”
Nourah expressed her frustration with the lack of institutional support: “I think that students’ activities in universities can be very rich and promising if not for the lengthy bureaucratic procedures. I wish our universities would provide more facilitation for intellectual and cultural initiatives. In my view, it is the responsibility of the academic institutions to have greater contribution and impact on the intellectual environment.”
Still it is evident that in the absence of active discussion and intellectual engagement in Gulf formal educational institutions on critical public issues, young people are finding their own ways to fill in the gap.
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