Wednesday, February 19, 2014

'No Araaabic Madam!': Book Shopping in Abu Dhabi

The beautifully designed programme
for the Emirates Festival of Literature
So, I stayed up late last night happily listing all the books that I wanted to read before attending the Emirates Festival of Literature in March. My plan: read the books, finish the books, get books signed, if possible, by their authors at the festival. An easy, straight-forward quite boring plan really.

The Emirates Festival of Literature has many sponsors. One of which is WHSmith where one can purchase the tickets (I got mine online) and where supposedly one would assume the books authored by the festival's speakers would be housed. Well, think again! 

In all fairness I did find two of the 15 books on my list and those were written in English. Bar one, the rest of my list consisted of Arabic titles and this is where it all went pear shape. The bookseller could not in any shape or form check if the Arabic titles on my list were anywhere in the store or even on the system because not one member of staff knew how to read Arabic. When I offered to check their system for them, I was refused on the grounds that it is not company policy to allow customers to access the store's computer. When I asked whether anyone in all the shop floors or in management elsewhere read Arabic, the response was a complete blank stare.

Me: 'So, what do you do if someone comes in and asks for an Arabic title?"
Staff: shoulder shrug and polite smile.
Me: 'So there are no Arabic speaking employees?'
Staff: 'No ma'am sorry. I don't know Araaabic'.
Me: 'Umm, how do I find my books then?'
Staff: All the Arabic books are over there
Me turns around to where I see three bookcases of Arabic titles stacked top to bottom. Will need at least two hours to go through them one by one. I am looking for 13 books. Exasperated I give it one last shot: 'Is there any way someone can help?'
The Blank Stare makes an appearance.
I leave.

And so the scenario repeats itself at Virgin Megastore and Magrudy's where in the case of the latter the staff were perplexed at the sight of a list in the first place. They were able to find one more title for me (the last remaining English title on the list) and nothing on the Arabic front. Again, the staff spoke no Arabic.

Looking back at the time when Mr. Fabulous suggested moving to Abu Dhabi, one of the positives I wrote down on my list was the fact that I would finally be able to get my hands on Arab author's books without the hassle of having to order them from the Middle East and wait for them to arrive in the United Kingdom. No postage, no postman! Now quite obviously No Chance!

It also makes me think that no wonder authors are excited to be chosen for the IPAF, a truly golden ticket. Why? Because one: they get to be translated into English which automatically leads to number two: the fact that they will be read by the public. Can it be that only a handful of people read any book written in Arabic and so booksellers are not concerned about catering to a few, such as myself, who might on the odd chance seek to read an Arabic title? Perhaps only the author's editor, spouse, and best friend read an Arab author's work and they probably get it free anyway. 

Frankly, I don't know how anyone is meant to find an Arabic title among a sea of Arabic books with no help from bookshop staff. No matter how much of an avid reader one is, I doubt one has the time to go over every single title in the store to find what he/she seeks. Is it now madness to assume that in a store that sells Arabic titles in an Arab country one might expect to find at least one member of staff who knows Arabic? How difficult can that be? Judging by my experience today: a mammoth ask!

I refuse to believe that I am the only one who finds this odd or unreasonable grounds for a moan. And yet I am nowhere closer to allocating those titles by authors I am dying to read. I need an end to my quest and I need it soon. All suggestions welcome! 

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