The digital world of literature: Momentum in the Arab world

Dalia Chams, Sunday 14 Feb 2021

Gen Z means more diversity as they delve into the new world of literature brought to them through numerous digital tools: YouTube, Spotify, Goodreads and many more

Nada ElShabrawy
Nada ElShabrawy

Reading is a ritual of sharing and emotion to younger generations thanks to YouTube, Spotify, Goodreads and book clubs on Facebook. In many cases, you do not write about a book, but often you hear about it. Hence, its success is difficult to measure by traditional standards.

Nada El-Shabrawy is the founder of the first Arabic-language YouTube channel dedicated to books in Egypt. Since 2017, Dodet Kotob (Bookworm) attracted 100,000 subscribers who follow her thoughts about books she reviews.

Aged 25, El-Shabrawy read 1,172 books (until January 2021) and broke the record she set for herself a few years earlier when she challenged herself to read 1,000 books before reaching 30.

A representative for the publishing houses of Gen Z and born with a mouse in her hand and her finger on a screen, El-Shabrawy is currently director of digital marketing at the Cairo bookstore Diwan and webmaster of the Kuwaiti platform for creative writing Takween.

Over the past few years the publishers started getting interested in BookTubers as platforms of opportunity and sales. They allow them to communicate with a large, otherwise hard-to-reach demographic group. The influence of BookTubers on the publishing world is growing. They are managed by "digital natives" who instinctively know how to generate engagement through their content, much more than literary critics and traditional cultural journalists.

Since the launch of Dodet Kotob, there has been an increasing number of young Egyptians who have created other Youtube channels, such as May Magdy, Mohamed Shady, Seif Habashi, and Amira Mahmoud, to discuss books. They share their love at first sight in a completely subjective way receiving nearly a billion visitors each month from around the world who watch for more than six billion hours.

“I'm thinking about doing podcasts and uploading them once a week, once a month. I trained during the Paris Podcast Festival last October,” El-Shabrawy said, hoping to study at the Paris’s Sorbonne. She admits to having a great affinity for the French language and culture, even though she studied law in the English language at the University of Mansoura, about 20 km from her hometown of Mahalla, in the Delta.

Paper remains important

The studies concerning the modes of reading and reception by IPSOS, Vivendi, Amazon, OC&C and other giants of culture and entertainment, and carried out on the global and globalised Gen Z, often apply to Egypt.
El-Shabrawy's comments confirm this, pointing out that young people aged 15 to 25 read digitally, but that the paper format remains reserved for the majority.

“They still like to read on paper. Digital reading in PDF, Kindle, audiobook and others remain complementary and enriching experiences, but they continue to buy books from bookstores or the Book Fair. As a marketing consultant, I'm still struggling to convince people to read digitally; explaining to them that they can save up to 30 percent of the price of the book and find books which are not on sale in Egypt, ” El-Shabrawy said.

“The flow of information and knowledge that has reached us in a short time, through the Internet, has made us surpass other generations. We can criticise everything, even masterpieces, without taboos. Nothing is sacred. We are more demanding and eager to know,” she continued, pointing to popular sources of books such as Goodreads, bought by Amazon in 2013.

To find books to read, these young people rely on the recommendations of their friends, but also those of celebrities. They are in direct contact with some of their favourite writers through their Facebook pages, such as Mohamed Abdel-Nabi (aka Nibo), Mohamed Rabie, Hisham Al-Khishen, and the older generation of Omar Taher and Belal Fadl, more sought after by Millennials and Generation Y. But in general, those popular on social networks are successful in their sales as well, including works nominated for literary awards, like the Arab Booker or Sawiris Foundation.”

The youngest of Gen Z are fond of fantasy, horror, and science fiction novels, but the more mature are fond of literature and philosophy, more than political and scientific works.

“Every two weeks, we post philosophical and anthropological essays, written in the Egyptian dialect, by Shihab EK or Shihab El-Khashab, a post-doctoral fellow from Cambridge. His articles are very popular among readers aged 18 to 24; they come second on our site, after those aged 25-34,” commented Amir Zaki, a journalist and translator.

With two of his friends, Zaki (born 1986), manages the electronic magazine Boring Books. He added that “This same age group have also discovered, through YouTube, philosophers like Slavoj Zizek, and psychologists like Jordan Peterson. These two stars debate their ideas using videos to make them more accessible.

Video and reading have now become extremely linked. I have friends who feed off philosophical texts on YouTube, and quite a few young people are interested in works of fiction, once adapted for Netflix, such as the series The Queen's Gambit and Game of Thrones. Arabic boomed after the television series were broadcast. All these categories exist at the same time as the admirers of the thrillers and dark novels of Ahmed Mourad.”

Social disparities and heterogeneity

Translated works are obviously very popular among young Egyptians, as many specialists point out, be they YouTubers, publishers, and managers of cultural sites and clubs. With the advent of YouTube and Facebook, these exchanges are happening on a larger scale, sometimes massive and global.

Each of these clubs targets a particular audience and as a whole they raise the social disparities that exist between readers. There are those who are considered more elitist, others as more bourgeois or more conservative. For example, BookMark has 40,000 members, Aassir Al-Kotob 1.5 million, and Nadi Al-Qoraa Al-Aslyine attracted 6,500 subscribers in one year.

"The translated works fill a gap in certain subjects, but perhaps this enthusiasm is also due to the effect of booktubers, who are very open to other cultures. However, there is a great heterogeneity in tastes and interests,” notes Ibrahim Adel, head of the Facebook group Nadi Al-Qoraa Al-Aslyine.

This heterogeneity is also underlined by Sameh Fayez, editorial director of the magazine Alam Al-Ketab (World of Books) and author of the best-selling book, published in 2019 by Al-Masriya Al-Lobnaniya editions.

“Some book groups have created their own stars and bestsellers. Azbakeya, a Cairo second-hand book market, quickly noticed the success of such books, first releasing them in PDF, publishing in print and selling on the sidewalks. They are sometimes more up-to-date than traditional booksellers, who have also started to focus on the tastes of young people,” says Fayez, citing as an example the Aassir Al-Kotob group, created in 2013 by three young men from Upper Egypt.

“The group promoted books in PDF format. Released by the unknown young authors, such as Doaa Abdel-Rahman, Mona Salama and Ahmed Al-Malawani, their works gained attention of the large public very fast. They have had huge success on the web, and some have taken off. Some of the founding members of these groups entered the book industry, opening their bookstores and publishing houses. The changes are so rapid, and being a journalist in my 30s, I try very hard not to feel overwhelmed by those events,” Fayez explains.

Gen Z means more diversity. Meanwhile, several worlds overlap, go in parallel lines, and sometimes we try to cross them, with difficulty. For about 10 years, each has carved its place, while all the trends exist and a very few are being excluded.

*This article was originally published in Al Ahram Hebdo, in French, 6 January 2021 edition. Additional edit: Ahram Online. 

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