Dubai: Walking into Kuttab Café can throw you off a bit. It’s clearly a coffee shop — a small chalkboard outside advertises frappes and fresh juices. But you can’t actually walk into the café; an arrow directs you to the next door, and that door takes you into a bookstore.
It’s only when you’ve walked through the bookstore, which hosts an impressive selection of Arabic titles — everything from modern Emirati titles like Kulthum Saleh’s Made in Jumeirah and Khalid Al Suwaidi’s Sultan Al Hareem to Arabic classics by Egyptian writer Tawfiq Al Hakim and translated versions of works like One Hundred Years of Solitude — that you get to the part of the shop that actually sells coffee. But that’s all part of Jamal Al Shehhi’s plan.
Al Shehhi, the CEO of Kuttab Publishing, opened Kuttab Café on March 14 as a cultural café — a place where people can sit to read, write and have a good cup of coffee.
“The UAE is living a cultural spring,” says Al Shehhi, pointing to the countless awards and exhibitions held in the country every year.
“We live in a society that respects and appreciates culture in a unique way,” he says. “The government plays its role, but we [residents] also, as the private sector, should play our role. ”Kuttab Café is Al Shehhi’s role.
Modelled after reading cafes found outside the UAE and particularly in the West, where Al Shehhi studied as a college student, the café is divided into three parts — the bookstore, the coffee shop, and the cultural café, lined with shelves of Arabic titles that can be picked up and read while you sip your drink.
The cultural café is probably the most visually arresting area of the store, although Al Shehhi maintains that for him, the bookstore is the main section. Both the bookstore and coffee shop have a sleek minimalism to their design. But once you enter the cultural café, that simplistic design gives way to a look that is modern and sleek, with large bright chairs and a wide-screen TV giving it a homey feel.
It’s a space that’s designed to induce and embrace creativity. Dr Sulaiman Al Hattlan, CEO of Al Hattlan Post and a columnist for Al Hayat newspaper, says he comes to Kuttab Café once or twice a week and sometimes writes his articles there.
“The idea is for the café to be the second home of intellectuals,” Al Hattlan, a partner in the café, says. “It’s good to find such an atmosphere linked to local culture.”
Drawing on his arsenal of young Emirati writers from Kuttab Publishing, Al Shehhi is using the café as a platform to encourage reading, especially among young people, a target group he has always been focused on. “For a nation, [reading] is life and death,” Al Shehhi explains.
Ahmad Amiri, an Emirati writer who published his book Al Akool (The Eater) with Kuttab Publishing, says that when Al Shehhi told him about his idea for the café, he thought it was “excellent.”
“Every time I visit I always see writers,” Amiri says. “It’s a place for us to meet.”
It’s important to have a place like that, he says. “Everyone leans towards people in the same field because we talk about the same concerns, the same dreams,” Amiri adds.
Although the café just opened last month, Al Shehhi has found that it’s a concept people can get on board with. “I got the best feedback ever,” Al Shehhi says, admitting that he didn’t expect such a positive response.
The shop holds weekly events, including book signings, launches and movie nights (courtesy of the flat-screen). Kuttab Café has already been home to two book signings and book launches, with Al Shehhi aiming to introduce the book signing culture so popular in other countries to the UAE. The signings take center stage at the store, with the author placed in a large, throne-like royal blue chair.
It’s all a part of what Al Shehhi wants to accomplish at Kuttab Café, bringing cultural events that were once seen as activities for society’s elite to the masses. “Culture is for everyone…it’s a lifestyle,” he says. Kuttab Café is good place to develop it.