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Modern culture and Arab literature: is there any way forward?

Yara al-Wazir

Published: Updated:

Earlier this week, Kuwaiti writer Muneefa Abdullah filed a lawsuit against Disney Studios over copyright infringement. The filing claims that the plot of the hit film “Frozen” was based on a story in Abdullah’s book, “The Snow Princess”.

I’ll admit that I haven’t had the chance to read “The Snow Princess,” nor will I write about the legitimacy of the claim. Putting aside the details of the lawsuit, and whether or not it will be successful, this is a time where we must recognize the talents that exist in the region. Figuring out a way to properly nurture these talents and develop them into substantial blockbusters ourselves is one of many ways to put the region on the map – and in a positive light.

Nurturing talent

Abdullah’s case is an interesting one, considering that an agency had taken note of her book and actually published it. However, the key strategy that her publishers may have missed was promoting the book.

Figuring out a way to properly nurture these talents and develop them into substantial blockbusters ourselves is one of many ways to put the region on the map

Yara al-Wazir

In a way, I understand the difficulty in promoting literature in a region that doesn’t necessarily consider reading a significant part of its modern culture. Newspaper, magazine and book sales have depreciated all over the world. There are no official statistics on readership in the Middle East, but a campaign in 2012 claimed that Arabs read an average of 6 minutes a year.

Although there were several pieces that were printed later on to dispute this statistic, it didn’t shock many, and made it to several talks at various conferences, including TED. Regardless that the statistic was proved to have no basis later on, intellectuals clenched to the very thought of a statistic because they believed that the region needed change.

So where did the publishers of Muneefa’s book go wrong? It’s difficult to blame them, or any particular party for that matter. It’s difficult to create a product when there is such a niche market for it. Having grown up in Kuwait, I had very fond memories of the Kuwaiti Bookshops, which was sadly shut down at the end of 2014. The bookshop market is like a decaying vegetable.

The deeper issue is not finding a market for publishers to market books to, rather creating a market. This responsibility lies on young children while they are being brought up, encouraged by governments, businesses, and culture that have the power to make reading a way of life. This begins with giving children books on their birthdays instead of iPads.

Recognizing artists

There is a strong sense of awe associated with foreign products that remind Arabs of their identity. Whether it’s oud-based perfumes, which have increased in popularity over the past few years by French-based producers, or even artist and cartoonists. After all, before Paris-based weekly Charlie Hebdo, there was Palestinian cartoonist Naji al-Ali. Less satirical, but equally political as Charlie, Naji al-Ali, too, was assassinated in the 1990’s for his work.

The key message is that for decades and centuries, the region has been an incubation hub for talented artists, writers, and thinkers. It’s about time that businesses and governments invest as much time and money into exporting home-grown art as they do in importing art.

Ultimately regardless of the outcome of the lawsuit, and whether or not Muneefa’s lawyers will be able to argue against a multi-million dollar studio such as Disney, it is worth recognizing that if her claims to the lawsuit are true, then her book, her story, and her words had the capability of inspiring millions of young girls around the world but they weren’t able to because her publishers simply didn’t have a market to push the book into.

Disney didn’t publish a book either, it published a film, but from it came a franchise and a world of opportunities.



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Yara al Wazir is a humanitarian activist. She is the founder of The Green Initiative ME and a developing partner of Sharek Stories. She can be followed and contacted on twitter @YaraWazir

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.