Audio book project brings joy of reading to Egypt's visually impaired

The volunteer-run project Al-Kutub produces audio books for visually impaired readers, an extremely underserved demographic in Egypt.

al-monitor Volunteers for Al-Kutub pose for a photo after a workshop at the program's offices in Cairo, Egypt, Nov. 28, 2016. Photo by Al-Kutub.

Topics covered

literature, egyptian society, disability, cairo, books

Dec 22, 2016

Abla Adel, a 25-year-old Egyptian with impaired vision, likes to spend her weekends reading.

On a sofa in her bedroom, she uses her laptop to access a SoundCloud channel called Al-Kutub (Arabic for "books"), where she finds dozens of audio books. Adel puts her headphones on and starts listening to her beloved novels.

“I search among different kinds of books and select what I want," Adel told Al-Monitor. "The voice is clear and I have a wonderful time listening to the books,” she added. Her laptop displayed the title of the Arabic-language novel "Wounded Laugh" by Egyptian satirist Belal Fadl.

Al-Kutub produces audio books for visually impaired readers. Founded in the Egyptian capital two years ago, the project is run by volunteers of all ages. When Adel learned about it from her friends, she was delighted.

“Before hearing about the project, I used to listen to my friends reading novels," Adel said. "Sometimes they summed up the stories for me. This was the only way for me to learn the contents of the different novels." Now, however, all kinds of books are available for people like Adel.

The project depends entirely on volunteers, according to Solafa al-Anwar, a social media marketing specialist and one of the founders of the project. "So far, 12,000 volunteers have joined the project," she said. "They do not come only from Egypt, but also as many as 32 other countries," she added, noting that the volunteers include Palestinians, Syrians, Algerians and Tunisians.

Volunteers record themselves reading the books using their mobile phones or tablets and then upload them to the MediaFire application and send them to the project’s production team.

Anwar said that volunteers must first take a reading test. After reading a page from a book, she said, applicants record their reading and then upload it for review. The project's evaluation committee of reading specialists and sound engineers listen to the recorded files and then determine whether the potential volunteer is appropriate for the job. The committee selects a suitable book for each volunteer according to the tone of his or her voice.

"For example, a volunteer with a melodious voice is best fit for reading and recording history and religious books," Anwar said. "A softly-spoken volunteer, meanwhile, is more suitable for children's books."

It usually takes between three and four hours to edit a recording, during which specialists omit pauses between words and repeated sentences and mistakes.

"Sometimes, we accidentally catch a motorist honking the horn of his car in the recorded track," she said. "We remove this to keep the voice of the volunteer clear."

After the specialists edit the recordings, they add music suitable for the book as well as introductions.

"Books about romance are the most popular for the visually impaired," Anwar said. "Then come religious books, books on psychology and others on human development."

So far, 68 books have been uploaded to the Soundcloud channel, according to Anwar. She said the project's team is working to edit 50 more books. The books are expected to be ready next month.

The project's team expects to participate in the next Cairo International Book Fair, held every year during the last week of January in Nasr City, eastern Cairo. The fair, one of the most important cultural events in Egypt, is also one of the top cultural events in the Arab world. It is an important meeting place for writers, poets, publishers and intellectuals from every part of the Arab world.

"We will invite some visually impaired persons to the fair to talk about the challenges they face every day," Anwar said. "Some of the participants will also be asked to showcase their talents for fair visitors." She added that the project's team will also distribute CDs of recorded books during the fair.

Doha Selim, a 22-year-old photographer and one of the volunteers with the project, told Al-Monitor that she learned about it from its Facebook page. Since then, Selim has been dreaming of sharing this unique experience with other people.

“I like the idea of giving," Selim said. "These visually impaired individuals cannot see me, but I can see them and I cannot ignore them while they need my assistance."

Selim goes to the project's offices in al-Tagamu' al-Khamis, on the southeastern outskirts of Cairo, every Saturday to receive training in Adobe Audition, the digital audio workstation from Adobe Systems. Once she learned how to edit recordings, Selim decided to practice the skill every Saturday together with other volunteers.

Selim was not initially accepted by the evaluation committee, because her voice, she said, was "not so good." She said she was eager to join the the project and after another two months, the committee approved her request to join the editing team.

Selim and many of her friends like the concept of volunteering. They do it, she says, because they want to please God. But Adel worries about how long it will last.

Adel studied history at the College of Arts in Ain Shams University. She is now working on a master's degree. She faces obstacles in some libraries that do not have electronic versions of their books.

“I always look for references and curricula on the shelves, but this is impossible to do without a companion," Adel said.

She told the project about this problem. The team then posted about it on the project's closed Facebook page, and the reactions were surprising. A large number of people offered to help by accompanying Adel to the library and reading the books for her.

"Will these volunteers keep doing this forever?" Adel asked. "I really don’t know. I need this problem to be solved, not only for me, but for all other people who have problems with their eyesight."

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