Alumni in the Spotlight | Ahmed Alali

Ahmed Alali (’15) is an editor of fiction and nonfiction at Rewayat, a company that publishes Arabic and translated novels for young readers and adults in the United Arab Emirates. Rewayat is a subsidiary of the Kalimat Group, the UAE’s “frontrunner in the field of Arabic Literature publishing.” (Kalimat is Arabic for “words”.)

While Alali was aware of his passion for literature, he decided to study software engineering at university because he thought it would lead to “a good job with a descent salary.” After two years of coding and collecting data, however, he needed a change. He wanted to work with books. Alali lived what he calls a “normal life” with a “normal family” in Saudi Arabia before he travelled to New York. Studying at Pace “changed everything.”

What brought you to New York and the publishing program at Pace?

Reading good books will teach you how to be a good writer. I didn’t want to study Creative Writing or Comparative Literature. Then I read about the M.S. in Publishing program. I received an email inviting me to the Accelerated Admission Day and I went there with documents I brought from home. I presented myself to the admission’s counselor. He opened every single sealed envelope, rearranged my papers, and went through a door behind him, asking me to wait. Among the required papers was my personal statement – three full pages of “achievements” that ended with my dream to find the next Arab Nobel laureate. When he came back out, I was told that my application had not been accepted.

Halfway to the door, however, I heard his voice asking me to come back. Susan F. Ford, the Director of University Graduate Admission, had appeared and said she had been trying to phone Prof. Raskin, the director of the program, but that he was unavailable. When he finally did answer, she explained my situation and read most of my personal statement to him. He agreed to accept me as a provisionally matriculated student for the Fall 2013 semester. I was required to achieve a “B” or better average for the first six credits of graduate study. I worked extremely hard and earned a 3.8 GPA that semester. To those who belived in me in the first place, I will be forever grateful.

Where did you complete your internship as a student? How did your internship/thesis help you get to where you are today?

I was building a Tower of Cards; the slightest wrong move and everything would fall apart. I sent my resume to most publishing houses and went to a couple of interviews. After some time, I received an email from my mentor-to-be, Anne Diaz, from Knopf. I went to her office and she took me on a tour and offered me a position, which I accepted. She stood by me, encouraged me, and helped me learn every aspect of publishing. She also introduced me to some of the legendary editors at Knopf and Vintage.

Leslie Levine played a major role in extending my internship from 3 months to a year, which broadened my horizons and expanded my knowledge. She eventually introduced me to Sonny Mehta, the Editor-in-chief at Knopf. When I met him at his office to discuss publishing matters, he explained to me that readers are a minority today, and then exclaimed, “Look outside!” I saw the snow fall for the first time. It was a magical moment I will not forget.

My thesis was about publishing in the Arab world. I discovered that the city of Sharjah (one of seven emirates that form the UAE) has made every effort to push the Arab publishing business forward. Further investigation on the matter led to reading about H.E. Sheikha Bodour Alqassimi, the key player behind that revival. I contacted her and we met in NYC. There, amidst the scent of morning coffee and the sounds of Columbus Circle, she started a new chapter in my life by agreeing to bring me to Sharjah. She has become my CEO – the person who has my back and pushes my ceilings higher. She trusted me with real business opportunities and got my hands into real work.

How would you describe your current position at Rewayat? 

I am living my dream! When Sheikha Bodour Alqassimi asked me what I wanted to do with my life, I said I wanted to become an editor. And here I am! Editing and reading books 24/7, contacting authors and literary agencies, bringing international titles to be translated into Arabic. At Kalimat Group we have published Truman Capote, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, James Baldwin, Bob Dylan, Margaret Atwood, and Raymond Carver, among other brilliant authors.

How do you interact with other departments in the house?

The editor role in the Arab publishing business has been underestimated for a long time. Arab publishers don’t have editors at their publishing houses, and the literary agent model of acquiring books is total nonsense to them. Kalimat Group, under the guidance of Sheikha Bodour Alqassimi, is one of the first Arab publishing houses to promote a different model – one that consists of all the needed departments to do successful publishing: editorial, marketing and sales, production and design, and more, all in-house.

It takes a lot of effort to make other departments in the company understand the major role of an editor and what he is capable of, from acquiring a manuscript all the way to distribution and marketing. It is all linked to him, because when an editor acquires a manuscript, he has a view of its potential readers and market and knows its space on the shelf. I think if I one day became an Editor-in-Chief of a publishing house (the position is yet to be created in the Arab world), I would put editors at the head of the decision-making process.

How do you see your field evolving in 5–10 years?

Sharjah is becoming more and more the hub of the Arab publishing business. Amidst all the wars and problems in the MENA region, I see no hope except in Sharjah. Sheikha Bodour Alqassimi is the first Arab woman to be elected to serve on the Executive Committee of IPA and has announced her intentions to launch a Reproductions Rights Organization (RRO) in the UAE. She is our hope to end the problems of the Arab publishing world, like censorship and piracy, for example.

What advice would you give to students entering the field? 

It takes a crafted hand to make a good product. If you don’t like books, if it is not a habit to read them, if you don’t prefer them to watching movies or travelling overseas, then leave the industry. I usually put the books I haven’t read in my clothes cabinet. Whenever I want to change and go out, my eyes find a new title, and then I cancel my plans to stay home and read.

What are you reading right now?

I am a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro. I read a couple of his titles before he became a Nobel Laureate. Now I am reading his Pale View of Hills.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

I would like to thank all of my professors in the program, especially Professors Raskin, Soares, Monagle, Johnson, Levitz, and Denning for their guidance and assistance. Prof. Raskin has built a solid program, and has outstanding professionals in the field teaching in the classroom.

*This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.