A blog about publishing on the Middle East

Who on earth am I?

My name is Isla and I am a freelance editor. For my sins, I tend to work in the field of Middle East studies, more on which below, although I’m currently based on the beautiful Scottish island of Islay (yes, that’s ‘Isla’ on ‘Islay’ and, yes, I’ve heard all the jokes).

What is this new thing?

This is going to be a blog about the particular world of editing books and journals focused in varying capacities on the Middle East. Sometimes it will be informative; most times it will probably just be a bit of a rant; I hope it will always be entertaining.

A bit of background or narcissism, take your pick

I suppose that it’s hardly worth mentioning that I once flirted with journalism during my years of youthful exuberance. I had been studying the Middle East, that intriguing hub of historical richness and cultural colour, and of societal and political fireworks, and I had a vague plan to become a foreign correspondent, maybe even a photojournalist.

So did everyone else. Plus, I had no money, so my old pal reality hit.

Needless to say, I did not save the world or we’d have found out about it by now. Nor did I win any awards for reporting live from the middle of a riot or a civil war. I did, unwittingly, get caught up in some bread riots in Jordan, but I’ll save that story for another time!

But, this one-time not-very-successful foray into journalism did inspire in me a love of words and writing and, well, pedantry. Hence, I, the girl with the quirky spelling and who rarely read anything as a child, decided to become an editor.

I embarked on the rather circuitous road of self-teaching, one-day training courses, and shitty jobs over several years. When I first started out as a freelance editor, like so many of us, it was because I had this love of writing and the smell of old books, and had some vague idea of working on the next great work of literature. Academic editing had not really crossed my mind at that point.

Besides, I had had a bit of a break from my studies and, to be perfectly honest, was rather enjoying not having to think about the Middle East for a while, if I can risk admitting that in a blog about editing in this field! The Middle East is a region that weighs heavily upon the hearts and minds of those who choose it as a topic of study and, occasionally, I find I need to take a step back from it and have a bit of a breather.

So, I enjoyed being distracted by art exhibitions, travel, photography, and now gardening (all things that I still hope I can bring to my work at some point!). I moved back to Scotland and lived in the Outer Hebrides for a while. I learnt some Gaelic. I went for walks. I climbed a Munro, and complained a great deal all the way up (and down) it. I learnt how to use a darkroom two or three times, but still haven’t quite got to grips with it. But, lovely though this all was, I still hadn’t managed to settle when it came to work. In fact, I ended up editing diaries for a while. Bleak.

Why the Middle East again?

After a bit of trial and error, I decided it was finally time to make the most of my membership of the Society for Editors and Proofreaders and take out a directory entry in order to attract better clients, and more of them, and to finally make a proper go of freelancing. Of all the various things I have listed in my entry, which include photography (still hoping for some nice photography books to work on, folks!), the words that seem to attract the attention of most of my enquirers are Arabic, Middle East, and, occasionally, Persian.

I don’t know whether this is a temporary development brought on by big media events like the Arab Spring, the Syrian refugee crisis, or the ongoing Israeli–Palestinian saga, but suddenly everyone, it would seem, wants to publish books about the Middle East. Although I am still wary of becoming too specialised should this pendulum decide to swing the other way, the fact that I have an academic background in this area seems to have led me back into the world of Middle East studies as an academic editor.

It feels a little like returning home to give the marriage another chance after a trial separation has helped me to see the error of my ways. And I have been hugely enjoying copy-editing and proofreading books and articles that have covered such a wide range of topics from Persian cuisine to feminist activism during the Arab Spring, from the unreported Bahraini uprising to Graeco-Roman archaeology in Libya.

Why this blog?

So, to get to the point (praise the Lord), I have fallen into the realm of copy-editing academic manuscripts about the Middle East, my chosen subject if not my chosen profession (not at first, at any rate), but it is a profession that is far more suited to me and from which I now gain a great deal of intellectual stimulation. Perhaps that is what I had been looking for all along.

It is a fascinating and perhaps surprisingly varied role to have and one which, I have discovered, has its very own quirks, not just in terms of the subject matter itself but also in terms of its structural and linguistic elements, not to mention all the typesetting faux pas. None of it is straightforward and quite a few publishing professionals still seem to be totally at sea when it comes to this field, and they certainly underestimate it, too.

Following several email conversations with various publishers trying to explain why one thing or another has happened, or why they can’t just give the usual ‘quick edit’ (read: ‘cheap edit’) treatment to some of these books, I thought perhaps this would be a very good topic to dip into for an occasional blog posting on my still-being-developed website!

I hope to explain a few of the quirks, to highlight some of the howlers that can happen (see exhibit 1 below), and to air a few of the very particular frustrations that editing manuscripts in this field can create. If I achieve only the latter, it will at least have been cathartic for me! But, I realise this is still a nascent area for many publishing professionals, especially in ‘the West’, so I do hope to inform a bit, too.

Please watch this space, and, in the meantime, please feel free to suggest an appropriate name for the blog!

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 1: Spotted at Edinburgh Airport, a typical example of problems with typesetting Arabic. Many typesetters who are unfamiliar with Arabic do not realise that it’s not enough to just import the text; you also have to run a script that will properly flip the text. This text appears back to front and the letters are unlinked. To the Arab, this looks like gibberish. (And, while we’re on the subject, the Gaelic at the top of the list is Irish and not Scottish, which would surely have been more appropriate for Edinburgh Airport!)