By Georgie Bradley
Agency, ambition and power of the literary classic Little Women has resonated with Sheikha Bodour Bint Sultan Al Qasimi several times during her life. Hollywood screenwriter and director Greta Gerwig’s recent film adaption of the coming-of-age novel saw her reverse-engineer the book’s originally tame tone in which its characters submissively toe the line, to a new era where the women have fire in their belly and a lot more to say. It made Sheikha Bodour “fall in love with the book all over again”.
The pioneering themes of the book are well placed in an Emirati context because the arc of the history of women striving for the top in the UAE has always bent towards justice. The country is on a unanimously straight line carved by women clearing a path for those who come after. Sheikha Bodour’s recent appointment to Vice President of the International Publishers Association, proves that “women have the permission to dream, to do and be what they want” – a reverberating tenet from Little Women, which she has clearly internalised and for other women to “take a leap of faith and start their ‘moment of lift’, as Melinda Gates refers to it in her recent book.”
Sheikha Bodour’s ascension was a natural evolution. She had been active member of the International Publishers Association’s many committees and initiatives. Now, she works closely with the President to uphold its vision and mission, working with different regions of the world to create platforms to cultivate critical conversation, “to give publishers of each region the opportunity to discuss with their own peers the challenges they face, and brainstorm ways to overcome them,” she says. A highlight so far has been spearheading an events series in Africa within its publishing community where “new talents are finding a place to shine”.
Sheikha Bodour is based in Sharjah – a place where she feels “totally grounded because it gives me the warmth of familiarity and comfort of predictability, which are necessary for our emotional well-being as we move along the different phases of our lives and as our professional and personal roles evolve with time.”
Within those home comforts, Sharjah is also a core for cultural disruption – cemented by being crowned UNESCO World Book Capital in 2019 – and inclusion through “activities and reading initiatives for non-Arabic speakers in their own native language” in an effort to promote a sense of respect and belonging. “It goes a long way in making everyone feel welcome in the UAE.”
Sharjah’s position as a linchpin for progressivism was spawned by the “Ruler of Sharjah, His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad Al Qasimi, Member of the UAE Supreme Council, who has been leading a cultural renaissance strategy that has a simple objective, which is to make human development the front and center of economic development,” she notes.
The support system is firmly in place to foster new talent. Since the formation of the Emirates Publishers Association over 10 years ago, different government entities have stepped up their provisions to provide a network for the book industry. The “National Media Council, the Ministry of Economy, the Ministry of Culture and Knowledge, and the Ministry of Education to name a few, have supported us at various phases during the past ten years.”
Sheikha Bodour is carrying the momentum for a new generation of Arab writers and publishers by creating different programs to support Emirati talent in cooperation with government entities, and working alongside the Ministry of Economy to improve the state of intellectual property in the UAE to encourage creative minds to become full time artists.
“I love how language and words are used to express ideas, thoughts, feelings and experiences. I feel like they can transcend all boundaries of time, culture, race and gender.”
With Sharjah’s natural ingredients to be a leader in its field, Sheikha Bodour is continuing to implement strategies to bolster the Emirates’ cultural infrastructure to “leave no one behind”. Since Sharjah has been given the aforementioned title, “we have been busy delivering a plethora of activities to audiences of different ages and backgrounds. We launched events and activities for theatre, poetry, cooks and books, and a series of book talks that feature a special author once a month. We also launched the Sharjah Beach Library initiative, which aims to make books easily accessible and promotes reading as a fun past time. We organized different exhibitions like the Evolution of Arabic Calligraphy exhibition, which is a celebration of the accuracy and splendor of Arabic calligraphy. One of my favourite activities is the Sharjah International Film Festival for Youth and Children, which we organized last October with the aim to expose the future generation to world cultures and to foster the values of peace, tolerance and global understanding,” she says.
Naturally, Sheikha Bodour is an avid reader herself, with a personal library with rafts of books from fiction to poetry to translated works from Japanese, French and Spanish. “I love how language and words are used to express ideas, thoughts, feelings and experiences. I feel like they can transcend all boundaries of time, culture, race and gender.”
As far as the growing debate on print vs. digital, she says “it is clear digital content is a big contender now in the publishing world” reinforced by the habits of digital natives and the rapid development of AI and machine learning. That said, “there is a strong return to paper books despite industry experts predicting the end of the paper book by 2020”.
Despite the surge in e-book popularity, you’ll find Sheikha Bodour tucking into the tactile experience of reading a book – not even just paperback, but the concrete certainty of hardback. “I personally love reading on paper and specifically on hard cover. I love the novelty of the book, the texture of the pages, the illustrations of the cover and the smell of the pages.” If she were to pen a book herself it would be a collection of essays about life experiences – a transformative, insightful and fascinating work of art that would be.
Words have the ability to change minds – something Sheikha Bodour knows and is an arbiter of, so it’s no surprise that the words of Dr. Seuss speak directly to her pioneering spirit: “Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”
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Georgie Bradley is a British-Greek editor and journalist based in Dubai after a lifetime in Bahrain – which she still frequents on a monthly basis. She is also a certified crisis counsellor for women victims of domestic violence, having volunteered for Women’s Crisis Care International in Bahrain. Elevating the voices of the region’s change-makers is what makes her tick.
The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.