Huda Merchant (Founder of Jeddah Reads)
Conducted on June 20 , 2017
Yes, you read it right. She is an inspiration, and she has set on a path that is in fact spreading magic in terms of how unique her goals are. She is Huda Merchant, the founder of Jeddah Reads, and she aims to make Jeddah a reader’s paradise by opening up school libraries, book clubs, and what not. How, why, and a lot of other questions have been asked of her because her efforts are worth acknowledging by our fellow Jeddawians:
What were the situations or incidents that you encountered that made you realise about lack of a reading culture in Jeddah, and gave you an initiative into this unique venture?
I was interning with a social enterprise in 2014. Back then, I was still studying my Bachelors in Media Studies, and my passion mainly lied in using media and communication towards causes. My mentors, Dania Al Masri & Fidaa Al Hassan (Partners at Impact with Deeds) asked me to think over causes I’d like to work on independently, to help the community and follow through my goals. I started my research on three different causes I was passionate about, but Reading was something I wanted to do something about the most since its close to my heart and while I was doing my research I realized that there is literally not so much of a reading culture here, a lot of schools here don’t have libraries, you rarely hear about any literary events, there is a considerable lack of public libraries and good bookstores as well. I’d spread surveys across offices and universities to understand why, plus, speaking to different people too gave me a clearer understanding of why the lack of such a culture persisted, which made it easier for me to outline my goals and initiatives, based on all the problems.
Are you solely involved in this venture of yours or you have put together a team working on it?
Currently, I don’t have a proper team. I handle most initiatives myself, but I do have 3-5 volunteers helping with different things from time to time such as events, setting up libraries, editing videos, and so on.
What are the age groups that you intend to target by these activities?
Initially, I was concentrating more towards children aged 15+ since 70% of Jeddah is the youth. However, through different projects, we more or less cover all age groups. When we set up libraries in schools, we cover ages 3-18, we have a book club for teenagers, our literary events are mostly for adults and off lately we’ve also started kids workshops that cover ages 5-10.
Do you think there are enough resources in Jeddah which will help you promote Jeddah Reads and it’s motives?
Ummm, I don’t think there are lack of resources, it’s only about how you use these resources. For example, there are lots of places for events but they’re usually used for other entertainment events, you rarely have literary events. Similarly, there are tons of cafes yet barely any of them have their own bookshelves or reading spaces. (something we are working towards as well). There are enough malls and yet there are no bookstores in these malls.
What are your plans with respect to the future of Jeddah Reads?
I’m hoping there is considerable impact and we see people in Jeddah reading more than ever. We want to have a lot more libraries set up in schools, and reading spaces at cafes, and definetely a lot more literary events and campaigns, bringing people together. Additionally, we also hope to have something in all these new public parks and walkways that have recently been developed.
Being an avid reader yourself, what is your all-time favourite book that you would not mind reading again and again?
This is a really hard question considering there are way too many books but I’ll try to stick to three. I read Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak about 2-3 years ago and it’s one of my favourite books so far. I love going back to parts of it time and again. I also absolutely love Where Rainbows End by Cecelia Ahern, I read it when I was back in school and have always been attached to it. Apart from that, I absolutely love this collection of prose & poetry by Lain Thomas, called I Wrote This For You. It is something I read almost every other day.
What message would you want to give to parents out there in terms of inculcating reading habits in their children, and how can it contribute to building their personality?
Reading from a young age can help so much. It not only helps kids in enriching their overall language skills but really helps them in enhancing their imagination, outlook and understanding of the world and its people. In simpler words, reading inculcates empathy and that essentially makes one a better person. I also think kids are usually less picky when it comes to reading as compared to adults who mostly tend to stick to certain kind of books and genres. As kids, there is so much to explore and comparatively more time to read, so I’d definetely encourage parents to allow their kids to read and read widely, not to restrict them to particular books, and let them spend more time with books than on screens!
Can you please enlighten us with the major projects Jeddah Reads is carrying out at the moment.
Here is a little brief about each of our main projects right now:
1. Libraries for Jeddah: As I mentioned, most public and many private schools don’t have libraries in their schools, thus discouraging reading from a young age. One of Jeddah Reads’s projects is to set up libraries in these schools. We customize these based on the school’s requirement. Apart from just setting it up, there’s also a system for borrowing that is made along with bi-weekly activities and small scale literary events tailor-made for these schools.
2. #50Readers1Question: A YouTube video series where each episode features one question related to reading, with about 4-5 people answering them in each episode. The idea is to encourage dialogue on reading and the series aims to cover 50 Readers and 12 Questions by the end of it. We’ve so far completed two episodes.
3. Collaboration with The Book Fairies Worldwide: The Book Fairies is a worldwide book sharing project that was launched earlier in March by Emma Watson. Jeddah Reads has collaborated with them. We will be hiding books around different public spaces in Jeddah for people to take, read and then leave for someone else to enjoy.
4. Community & Literary Events: We regularly host different events, the aim is to get the existing literary community together and let it multiply and grow henceforward.
5. #PayByBook: In April, for World Book Day, we collaborated with Medd Cafe, Impact with Deeds and Kotobji to organize our first on-ground campaign where people bought coffee, spent one-on-one time with experts in exchange of books. The books collected were contributed to an underprivileged school, to set up their library.
6. Reading Influencers Programme:
Post summer, we will be launching our reading influencer’s program, which gets selected readers from Jeddah together to train them as reading influencers through exciting activities and initiatives in Jeddah. I’ll reveal more details on the same as it launches.
7. The Bibliophiles | Book Club: This is our teenager’s book club, where a group of them meet every week and discuss the book they’re reading. We’ve so far covered Finding Audrey by Sophie Kinsella and Sophies World.
8. Theme Based Book Club (BYOB: Bring Your Own Book) : We’re also going to launch our theme based adult book club soon, where instead of picking a book every month, the book club will be based on different themes.
Apart from all this, the website is currently under process, which would also include a database of existing book clubs in Jeddah, Interviews of Writers, etc.
To know more about and stay in touch with Jeddah Reads and their projects’ details, do follow them on Facebook and twitter: