Bookworms in the Arab world have a virtual space where they can read, review and share books and publications in the first Arabic social network established specifically for the readers, authors and bloggers in the Middle East.
The award-winning platform Abjjad, which refers to the alphabet in the Arabic language, is the first website of its kind in the region. It is the idea of Eman Haylooz and Tamim al-Manaseer, who are passionate about spreading their enthusiasm among readers of Arabic.
“We noticed that there is a lack of interest in reading Arabic books, which gave us the idea of bringing reading material to the hands of everyone who enjoys reading a book,” Haylooz said.
The pair won the interest of Oasis500, the Amman-based investment company and business accelerator, which provided funding to set up the Abjjad website.
“We launched the first version of the website in 2012 at a budget of around $15,000 and we were surprised that we had more than 10,000 members registering in the first three months. This gave us the will and motivation to make it better, much better,” Haylooz said.
While looking for additional investors, the pair promoted their website at local and global events, she said.
“One of the events we took part in was the Global Thinkers Forum in Amman and then in Dubai in 2013,” Haylooz said, “we were shortlisted to participate in start-up Turkey and from there we were able to establish the space that is so close to the heart of every reader — a space where they can read, review and share reading material and comments.”
Abjjad, which has more than 500,000 members has, registered more than 185,000 reviews. It won the Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum Best Arab Start-Up Business Award for 2013.
The user-friendly website enables readers to have their own account, create their own virtual library in which they have “previously read,” “currently reading” and “plan-to-read” lists. Members can rate books, write book reviews, add notes to authors’ or books’ pages and enrich authors’ pages with related information.
“Our members call themselves ‘Abjjadyeen,’ which, in a way, is very cool and creates a kind of belonging to a very educated group of readers who enjoy sharing the latest books, reviews and mainly everything about books. The biggest fans come from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Algeria and the United States,” Haylooz said.
The spread of internet use and the accessibility of online information in the Arab world helped make Abjjad a way of life, she said.
“Today, almost everyone has a smart phone and can easily download the application and start reading. The latest statistics show that 70% of Jordanian society owns a smart phone… which encourages people to read on the go,” she said.
For a monthly fee of $5.99, Abjjad’s No Limits subscription, which was recently created, gives the subscriber unlimited access to books using the smart application on both Android and iOS with revenues shared with publishers.
“Readers can rest assured that all books are original and all issues related to intellectual property are genuine,” Haylooz said, adding that the website has cooperation agreements with publishing houses in Jordan and abroad.
“We have agreements with several key publishing houses such as Lebanon’s Dar AsSaqi and Amazon for English books, which allows us to open new opportunities for readers to explore new titles and put their hands on the latest publications in various subjects.”
Abjjad allows people to subscribe for a month free of charge. Even without a subscription, there are around 700 titles available for reading without any charge. These include Shakespeare’s plays, works by Lebanese writer and poet Khalil Gibran and Egyptian journalist, poet and literary critic Abbas Mahmud al-Aqqad’s publications.
For Haylooz, who studied computer science at Princess Sumaya University for Technology and got an MBA degree from the University of Jordan, Abjjad is a fulfilling venture.
“I decided to start my own thing that is directly related to my passion and experience, namely books and the cyber world. I believe we have created a product that is so beautiful and that people can relate to and enjoy and we still have many plans for the future of Abjjad that we hope will work too,” she said, adding: “I love books, so I founded abjjad.com.”
Recently, Abjjad received funding from Abd al-Hamid Shoman Foundation, which owns the biggest and oldest public libraries in Jordan. Abjjad is the foundation’s official digital library.
The Arab Reading Index, which was released in 2016 by the Arab Knowledge Project, shows that the Lebanese are the most avid readers in the Arab world. The average Lebanese reads 59 hours and 29 books annually while the average Arab reads 35 hours a year.
Lebanon was followed by Egypt, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan in reading habits.
Roufan Nahhas has been covering cultural issues in Jordan for more than two decades.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.