Passion to Movement: How Huda Merchant moved Jeddawis to Read

If you've been here in Jeddah for more than 10 years, you know how this place has changed when it comes to book loving and reading. I remember in the early 2000, bookstores had very limited books to offer, they did not have the famous books trending around the world. People were not also into reading. In other countries, you are considered a school without a library. Here, schools would provide a tiny room, put two to three shelves with books and call it a library just to say there's a school library, and kids never go there. Most of them don't even know they had one. When you travel in other places, you'd see people holding books while drinking coffee or waiting in airports, but it was not the case here. Around 2015, when I searched for books, book club, reading community, I found Huda Merchant's blog that time named  Jeddah Reads, I remember being so happy that there was someone who actually wrote about the lack of reading here in Jeddah and was creating a movement. Years after that, there were activities like paying book for a cup of coffee and Book Fairy (Like Emma Watson's) where books will be hidden in different places in Jeddah and if you see it, it's for you to read, and other programs that helped the people in Jeddah love and enjoy reading. Here's our catch up interview with Ms.Huda after many years where we asked her more about Jeddah Reads.

1.When did you start Jeddah Reads?

I initially started Jeddah Reads as an instagram/digital platform to encourage reading while I was still in college, back in 2014. However, I only fully started working on the larger idea and the execution of the project beyond Instagram in 2016.

2.Why did you start Jeddah Reads?
In 2014, I was working with a social enterprise and researching different social issues in Jeddah. Through my journey in doing so, I realized there wasn’t any sort of reading or literary culture in Jeddah. You didn’t have literary events and workshops, and overall – people just didn’t really read much. In fact, through my research – I also found out that 70% of schools didn’t necessarily have libraries and that too contributed to inactive reading habits among young people. Since reading can have a powerful influence on the overall development of our society, I wanted to do something about this and hence started Jeddah Reads as a means to promote an active reading and literary culture in the region.

3.What do you think are the main reasons why there was a lack of book lovers or readers in Jeddah?

There are many reasons; such as lack of libraries in schools, which lead to people not reading from a young age itself, then there are lack of bookstores. We do have some of them now but when you compare it to the rest of the world, we still have lesser and less diverse bookstores in Jeddah. Additionally, you rarely had literary events, book clubs or workshops which eventually lead to less awareness about the literary field in general. However, I’m happy to say that things have changed a lot now since 2014 and we’re getting there.

4.How did Jeddah Reads help in encouraging Jeddawis to read?

Our aim is to promote a reading and literary culture through mainly three approaches – by launching different projects, conducting various events and workshops and lastly, collaborating with both local and international organizations. While our different projects such as ‘Libraries for Jeddah’ (where we build libraries and reading corners in schools, cafes and communities) and ‘Junior Readers’ (a creative book club and library space to encourage reading from a young age) helps us solve focussed problems, our frequent events and workshops help us create awareness, give existing literature lovers a platform and overall – helps us promote a literary culture in the city, while our collaborations help us spread our cause further with the right people. All of these things come together in a way that inspire an active reading and literary culture in the city.

5.What’s the most unforgettable event that Jeddah Reads conducted?

I think one of our most successful events to date has been Wameed. A bi-annual talk event that brings speakers from different backgrounds.

6. What were the challenges you faced while setting up Jeddah Reads?

Cultural barrier. Although I’ve spent many years in Saudi, I’m still considered an Indian expat. Jeddah is a very diverse city, and moreover, the Saudi society, in general, can be very secretive and difficult to understand, especially if one’s not completely part of it oneself. However, I think with time and now having a culturally diverse team on board, things have been a lot better.

7. What can we expect from Jeddah Reads in the coming months/years?

Due to the COVID-19, unfortunately a lot of our on-ground activities had to be put on a pause and things slowed down, while we did take some of our projects online. However, once things are back to normal we plan to get back to our regular activities, and also start expanding on our existing projects.

8. Now that kids are staying at home most of the time, how can we encourage them to enjoy reading?

One of the ways to encourage kids to enjoy reading is to read with them, and inculcate reading a book everyday as part of their daily routine. Most importantly, you would want to get them books they can relate to and enjoy. I truly believe everyone is a reader, but they just need to find the right book.

9. How can we (community) help Jeddah Reads?

By supporting and spreading our message and of course, attending our events.

Her story is another proof that anyone can make a difference. Her research led her to see the need to move and take action. Since it was also her passion to read and write, her little steps along with others who had the same vision with her created a movement that increased reading awareness and love for books in Jeddah. 

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