Shuttling between books, libraries, free reading spaces, and book fairs around the world, the vice president of the Arab Publishers Union and the director of Al-Watad Publishing House remembers; Ibrahim Abdul Rahim Al-Buhashem al-Sayed has a memory that preserves what was written in the past and says what the books did not say. The master draws inspiration from that memory in what is the perfect image of this very perfect being called a book. As he recounts the details of the beginning, the secrets of the journey, and its various stations, the owner of Al-Watad informs us that anyone who is not moved by the book and its volumes is in a bad mood, and the book may determine that one’s value. Read so that I may know you better!
A story that goes back more than 50 years, Ibrahim El Sayed narrates with much nostalgia, pride, and gratitude. He talks about the place where his awareness of the book began to form, and the place where he stayed, which reminded me of a quote by the Libyan novelist Ibrahim Al Koni: It is not where we live, it is where we live. Ibrahim Elsayed talks about the joy of learning about books, the joy of being carried in this unique box, the joy of exhibitions, libraries, the captivating privacy, the joy of symbolic places and the mobile dream that walks on its knees in a perfect way.
The writer and publisher Ibrahim Al Sayed talked about many stages of his life related to the book, and the tourism he invested in inventing a new format for book fairs. He also spoke with a lot of gratitude about personalities that had an impact and influence on his experience, and about the role of HE Sheik Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al Thani in supporting Qatari publishing houses and his keenness to localize the book, among other topics in the next dialog.
* How did your relationship with the book started, and what led you to it?
** My love for the book started from childhood, and I knew it before I entered school. My father loved books, and so did my grandfather. The scene was fun for me. I mean the fun of looking at books. I was so passionate about her that I accompanied her with me. I did not care how heavy she weighed when I was that age. However, an uncle saw me carrying books and bringing them back. I would put the books in that box and hire them behind me, as the “rubabikya” seller would do as he walked around his wares.
Our home in old Doha was close to Freij Al-Asmakh. In addition to my father’s house, it housed my grandfather and uncle’s house, and it had a large area called Al-Liwan. In this area, there were columns that I used to consider students and myself the teacher. That was the beginning of the relationship with the book. Something I held in my hand, but I was not reading it.
In 1972, at the preparatory level, the first book fair was held; This was a discovery for me, as it was the first time I had seen a place with large numbers of books; bigger than our floating library. At that stage, I started reading Najib Mahfouz’s novels, and Ihsan Abdul Qudoos used to attract me. To this day, I still keep many old books that were published by Dar Al-Ouda in Lebanon, Dar Al-Alam Al-Malayein and others.
The beginning of passion
*What is the stage at which passion is gradually developing in the world of books?
** This was in the preparatory stage. I was fond of the wall magazine, and I read it and summarized its content. Because of my passion for it, my brothers and I decided to copy it at home, and we published it every two weeks or every month. My father, who used to buy us the necessary tools, encouraged us, and we issued and read it.
Also at the preparatory level, the school radio supervisor suggested that I become a friend of the radio station, and I was active in the editorial aspect, which is the preparation of material. In the 1970s, we founded the first scientific club in the neighborhood, the first of the current Qatari scientific clubs, which was founded in the early 1990s in the same neighborhood and is now affiliated with the Ministry of Sports and Youth.
At the beginning of high school, in 1975, I helped establish the Al-Sadd Theater, with the encouragement of my father, even though my uncle refused me entry to this field. My brothers joined sports clubs, and then we joined the Arab Club in the cultural aspect.
When I traveled to study in America in 1997, I was attracted the most by the university library where I studied. I used to sit for long hours between books, including old Arabic books and magazines. I was at university at two points: library and cafeteria. The university library was like a retreat, where I found myself in a direct relationship with the book, and those years deepened that relationship.
Sunday at the university was a weekend day. There were no activities, and to not get bored, I would go to a library near me, which is a space for selling books and reading them, so people go everywhere. It was amazing because I was not used to these kinds of libraries, and it made me a lot of fun.
What attracted me in these libraries as well is the free exhibition of books, which is a good thing because I believe books are not a trade and should reach everyone. Nowadays, libraries do not have a guide to choose a book to read. However, the Ministry of Culture, thankfully, paid attention to this issue at the last Doha International Book Fair and dedicated an event called “The Guide to Reading”. This good gesture was well received by the book audience. I hope that this tradition will continue and that libraries specializing in the sale and display of books will follow its example.
There is no doubt that university is also an important stage in my life. I still keep many old books, especially those that were affected by the fire that swept our house.
* What happens after you return from America? Have you chosen a field close to the books?
** Joined the People’s Heritage Center of the GCC States; this center is a scientific research institution. My interest was in traditional medicine and the like, and I specialized in herbal medicine, which is a field related to books. I remember that Mr. Artist Mohammed Ali Abdullah, the head of the unit, used to bring us the book “The Gulf Guide” and ask us to summarize it (he laughs).
* When did your interest and passion for tourism begin?
** Tourism has taken a part of my life. The beginning was around 1989, and my book, “The Magic Carpet,” explores this stage of my interest in tourism. State business had to do with writers; private business had to do with tourism. Perhaps my interest in it was through my work tours where we moved between Arab countries. I contributed to the establishment of the first tourism fair and the first tourist magazine, Al-Afaaq magazine. My interest in tourism was reinforced by my work at Al-Sharq newspaper, which I entered in 1989. I had a colleague named Omar Abu Gharra, who was interested in some tourism news. My colleague Omar and I proposed the idea to him, and he gave us a quarter of a page. It became half a page until I joined the newspaper in 2000. I was working at the time as director of passenger services for Gulf Air. In 2000, Al-Sharq was transferred from the old administration to the new administration, and I proposed that we continue the tourism page, and we started to work on turning it into a weekly page. After that, it became a daily page, and we established a tourism department that became very active during that period.
* You are known for your association with the ministers who assumed the portfolio of the Ministry of Culture at different times.
** I am happy that I have become more than one minister who passed through this ministry since it was the Ministry of Information, then Media and Culture, then the National Council for Culture, Arts and Heritage, then the Ministry of Culture, Arts and Heritage, then the Ministry of Culture and Sports, and the Ministry of Culture today. During our transition from the Popular Heritage Center to the Ministry, I supervised the popular folklore magazine and transferred my experience with Al-Sharq newspaper to the magazine. We were interfering with the editorial side; the administrative aspect was also important, and one of the most important magazines was the Court of Heritage, which was then discontinued. We hope that she will return with HE Minister of Culture Sheik Abdulrahman bin Hamad Al-Thani, because it is an important magazine with the testimony of many writers and researchers in the Arab world.
In the ministry, I served as director of the department of public libraries. We organized the first book fair in its current form, and my experience was put into the exhibitions. The book fair was a bookstore. In 2016, we started to develop the idea of a place to exhibit books and hold sessions in a different way, and the challenge was in 2017, but it was one of the most successful exhibitions.
Qatari Library House
At this stage, I also had a relationship with the Qatari House of Books, an old relationship that goes back to the preparatory stage. When I became the Director of the Department, the sight of books and the place itself that needs restoration, and the equipment that has been eroded and deteriorated shocked me. My steps began to restore life to this house, which we consider a cultural heritage dating back to 1958 by the late Sheik Ali bin Abdullah. It was under the administration of Sheik Jassim bin Hamad Al-Thani, who was at that time the Minister of Knowledge. The Qatari House of Books was founded by merging the Library of Knowledge and the Library of Dar Al-Ulum, which is the first public library officially in the Gulf Cooperation Council, and we began to develop and restore it. A long and sorrowful talk for me and for everyone who visited her.
* From the Qatari Book House to Al-Watad Publishing House, a long time lapse, but the relationship with the book has not changed. What led you to establish a publishing house?
** This is also another important stage in my life. Al-Watad became known in 2018, after a plan by the Ministry of Culture in 2016 to launch four Qatari publishing houses. Publishing houses started out in a sequential manner (Lusail, Rosa, Al-Widd, and Zakrit), and the Qatari number of deposits rose to 100%. Through the Ministry of Culture, I was able to establish the Qatari Publishers Forum, which I was the director of from 2019 to 2021, and then other colleagues who I wish all the best of luck received it.
In addition, because I always say: When you retire, you do not have to end your relationship with the book, like start a book center or space, I mean unconditional reading by sale. I always thought about this topic, and I think I did that at Al-Wedad House, which has a large reading table. I suggested to my colleagues at the house that we announce through our social media accounts: “Come drink a cup of coffee and read a book.”
How would you describe Al-Wedad’s participation in international book fairs?
** We participate in Gulf exhibitions (Saudi Arabia, Oman and Sharjah) and Arab exhibitions (Cairo, Tunisia, Jordan), in addition to my personal contributions through my work and relationship with the book. This has led me to the most important exhibitions in the world: In Frankfurt, London and Paris, a week ago we participated in the Bologna exhibition that specializes in children’s books.
At Al-Wedad, we are keen on highlighting Qatari writers and showing them abroad. Therefore, the most prominent writers I have are Qatari writers, in addition to resident writers, which we consider additional to the house. Our publications include books on law, university studies, novels and children’s books. His Excellency is interested in supporting Qatari publishing houses, and has a well-known saying, “We must domesticate the Qatari book.” The word we write the book has deep meanings, and I appreciate his keenness to talk with us and listen to our suggestions as publishers.
* Tell us about your experience with the Arab Publishers Union and your relationship with publishers.
** I am a colleague of the Arab Publishers Association and they are my friends, and I earned their trust by becoming vice president of the union. We have more than one conference and project, and with the support of HE the Minister of Culture, we are working to be members of the International Publishers Union, which is very important. At the same time, it is important for me to reactivate old print houses, such as those of local newspapers, and those of Ali Ben Ali, because I consider this aspect very important.
* Is there something you have not yet achieved?
** I believe that man, as long as he lives, will still aspire. Perhaps I have started to put the first steps in my relationship with the book through a book that I hope will be presented at the Doha International Book Fair next year. This project deals with my relationship with the book through all the aspects that I’ve learned in my life.
It is important to mention that I conveyed the love of books to my children and made them love reading through books that I love, such as the series “The Five Adventurers”, which I used to read for them in the Egyptian dialect. They enjoyed it, and I have one of my daughters who wrote the short story and participated in competitions and won awards.
* What are your rituals in reading?
** I always teach my children and the staff of Al-Watad how to read a quick book. I learned this way through the process of publishing. It knows how to pick up the page and know its content. I also learned from His Excellency the Minister of Culture how to read the book from left to right because reverse reading may make you not pay attention to some of the things that are rejected in form and content, and I am proud to have learned something new.
* What is the difference between being a regular reader and being a publisher?
** In the publishing house, I play my role as a publisher. Publishing is a major responsibility linked to the quality of the book bearing the name of the publishing house. This requires expertise to be guided by so that the evaluation is objective and to help me rebuild the text; because not every manuscript can be published, a new manuscript must be reconstructed.
You may find a book that has good content but needs to be refurbished and rebuilt and amended, so you have to go through more than one section.
One novel caught us off guard because it was good, but it had an unnecessary filling, so I asked the author to rebuild it and it was done, and it was one of the most beautiful novels. This leads us to say that when you build with the author, you are restoring the novel. The publishing house is a partner with the writer, and the success of the novel is important to me as a publisher.
* Does it bother you when a book published by Al-Wedad receives criticism?
** Absolutely, that does not bother me; maybe the writer, as they get excited and upset. One of the situations I remember is that someone wrote a manuscript and called it a novel and published it. It was laughable and sarcastic, because the work did not exceed 30 pages. The book received harsh criticism. I applaud this writer for writing.
* What advice do you give beginner writers?
** Read. Read, read, then write.