Abu Dhabi: They are both voracious readers, and having found their love for books, two expat women in the UAE have made it their mission to reignite the passion for reading.
Today, their largely online venture, Al Alami Book Club, has 700 members, and is growing by the day. Speaking to Gulf News, Farah Al Alami and Deema Al Alami, who both hail from Jordan and are distant cousins, said it is heartening to see more and more people embrace the written word.
“I was always a reader, and never saw my aunts and older female relatives without a book at hand. But in university, I got into a reading slump and life took over afterwards. When my sons were born, I knew I had to be an example for them if I wanted them to enjoy reading, and that is when I found my way back to reading,” Farah, a 39-year-old senior public relations executive, told Gulf News.
Wanting to challenge herself, Farah read 16 books in 2018 alone, then increased it to 30 books in 2019. The following year, she was able to get through 43 books.
“It isn’t about the number, but I found it exciting to challenge myself,” Farah said.
At about the same time, she also converted her private Instagram account to a Bookstagram to connect with other readers, and inspire discussions on the book she was devouring. Within two years, the account boasted about 15,000 followers.
Book club launch
When the pandemic hit, Farah suddenly had more time on her hands. An online encounter with a distant cousin in Dubai, Deema, 38, then inspired the two women to launch their book club. As an educational consultant and co-author of two Arabic language books for children, Deema was already sharing tips on helping young read through her own Instagram account.
“The pandemic made us all think about how we could give back to the community, and a book club seemed like a natural choice for us,” Farah said.
Within a month, the club had 700 members, and British-Cypriot author Alex Michaelides’ novel, ‘The Silent Patient’, was chosen as the first read.
“Deema and I spend a long time deciding on what book to read, especially as we want to pick something that people can easily get their hands on, and will enjoy. We also try to explore different genres through our picks,” Farah said.
Till date, the book club has gone through 10 books, including bestsellers ‘The Vanishing Half’ by American author Brit Benett and ‘Wish You Were Here’ by Jodi Picoult. The founders want to ensure that no one is pressured to read too quickly, and sets a two-month reading period for each book. They also make sure that no book is longer than 400 pages. Once they are done, members then join an online session on Zoom that Farah and Deema moderate in order to discuss the book with one another.
“It would be lovely to meet in person, but having the discussions over Zoom certainly sees many more people joining in. In fact, we’ve had people participate from Sri Lanka, Jordan, and even as far away as Canada, just to discuss what they’ve liked or not liked about the book,” Farah said.
The majority of club members are women, and Farah puts it down to women simply being bigger readers.
“But we have people aged as young as 16 years old in our club, and as much as 65 years old, and that is truly encouraging. What is also interesting is that we also have at least one male participant in every Zoom discussion,” Farah said.
The reads have also promoted a variety of heartfelt discussions, including on topics like body positivity, domestic abuse and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Farah and Deema said they are delighted at just being able to help people rediscover the joy of books.
“I’ve always wanted to convert every family into a ‘reading family’, and our book club is a step towards that. After all, children won’t enjoy reading unless they see their parents reading, and we are helping mommies be an example for them,” Deema said.
She too always saw her mother and grandmother with a book in hand, and stressed that the habit must be cultivated from a young age.
“With books, like with much else, you have to start young. So, as I enjoy reading and discussing books on our book club, I continue to share tips on how to encourage young readers,” said Deema, who harbours a particular passion for historical fiction.
Adding to her read list
Farah, on the other hand, is continuing to add to the list of books she has read. She has already finished 20 different works in 2022, and said she continues to read books other than just book club picks.
“I prefer to read fiction, like most members of our book club. But apart from romances and novels in English, I also enjoy the occasional memoir, as well as novels in Arabic,” she said.
Beating time constraints
Asked what deters people from reading more, Farah said time constraints are the biggest complaint.
“Then again, this is not insurmountable. I recommend people keep a book handy to whip out when waiting in a doctor’s lounge, for instance, instead of scrolling through their phones. As for myself, I’ve discovered that I enjoy reading while on the treadmill, so my workouts have a positive effect on both my mind and body nowadays,” she quipped.
Farah and Deema’s recommended reads
• Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
• The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah
• Verity by Colleen Hoover
• The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides
• The Other Women by Sandie Jones
• The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn
• The Mother In Law by Sally Hepworth
• Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
• Educated by Tara Westover
• Four Winters by
• Shantaram by Gregory David Robers
• Lean In by Nell Scovell and Sheryl Sandberg
How to read more, from Al Alami Book Club
• Encourage your kids to read so it grows with them as a habit.
• Choose the genres you mostly enjoy. Don’t pressure yourself with a genre that you don’t like. All genres are eye-openers and feeds your soul and mind.
• Make it a mission to read at least 10 pages a day – before bedtime ideally.
• Leave your gadgets and phone, and grab a book to read instead.
• Take a book with you when you leave home – you can read while waiting a doctor clinic, or in the car while waiting for your kids at school pick up or at the hairdresser!
• Read while exercising on a treadmill or on a flight or a road trip. However, this works only for those who do not suffer from motion sickness.
• Make it a memorable and enjoyable trip/experience for you and your family to visit a book store or book fair.
• Take your kids with you when you go for books shopping.
• Visit libraries, especially when travelling.
• Finally, join a book club. This will motivate you to finish books, and will make you excited to discuss it with others who read it.