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Beenish Ahmed has the travel bug. Just back from Mexico, soon she’ll head to India and then the Middle East to experience life as a local, immersing herself in different tastes, sounds, and cultures—solely through books. A reporter at WNYC, Ahmed has traveled as a journalist to Kenya, Haiti, Malawi, and the United Arab Emirates. She also happens to be a voracious reader of fiction and in recent years began to wonder if it might be possible to bridge her two passions, connecting literary works to current events.
Experiences like these were the inspiration for The Alignist, a hybrid book club and subscription company Ahmed launched this winter to deliver international novels to literary fans across the United States. The “Alignist Box” contains a carefully selected work of fiction that illuminates a specific region. Alongside it is a custom-made companion booklet, called “the roadmap,” which offers contextual detail and news reporting–enhancing her readers’ understanding of each destination.
“I’ve covered international news for most of my career as a journalist,” she told us. “This is a way to empathize with what’s happening [around the world]–to immerse yourself in the big picture, the good and the bad.”
When we meet up in Brooklyn, Ahmed is planning a Q and A in coordination with the first selected novel, Prayers for the Stolen by Jennifer Clement. The event will likely be held in an independent bookstore here in New York, with a live-streaming option for subscribers across the country. Clement will speak about her novel, set in Guerrero, Mexico, which focuses on the personal toll of drug and human trafficking. The event will also feature expert speakers in dialogue with Clement, expanding the book’s narrative into real-life significance.
Growing up near Toledo, Ohio, Ahmed didn’t travel much as a kid. She took periodic trips to her family’s native Pakistan, but otherwise, traversed the globe through literature. “I felt moved to travel because I had been a reader of international fiction,” she later explained.
On a Fulbright Scholarship to the University of Cambridge in London, she first began exploring. “I would go to different countries in Europe and try to read a work from the place I was visiting. I was in Dublin reading Dubliners.”
In that experience, she unknowingly planted the first seeds of The Alignist. As the idea of launching a business began to emerge, Ahmed initiated a successful Kickstarter campaign. From there, friends ordered the first Alignist Box and spread the word via Instagram, creating word-of-mouth buzz.
Ahmed describes The Alignist as “having a character as your guide, in the way that you can have a tour guide or taxi driver tell you, ‘here are the authentic experiences.’”
The Alignist offers two options: Just The Facts and The Whole Story. The former contains the novel and the roadmap. The latter includes the above as well as an assortment of regional goods. The full package that accompanied Prayers for the Stolen featured items that reflected the culture of Guerrero: fair-trade chocolates, Mexican oregano, recipes for local dishes like Adobo a la Talla, and artwork inspired by Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Understanding a culture and unpacking it through its food, its traditions, its language–that comes through a desire to immerse yourself in a place,” Ahmed said.
“When I read, I flag whenever food is mentioned, or some political leader is referenced.”
And, of course, the main subject matter of the book–in this case, drug trafficking–becomes source material for the reporting that later constitutes the roadmap.
“Because of the opioid epidemic in America, Guerrero has become the most violent state in Mexico,” she said about the area’s involvement in global drug production. “I want to bring attention to novels when they relate to the news.”
The novels selected for The Alignist are not necessarily this year’s bestsellers or last year’s Pulitzer winners. Besides being rich, captivating books, The Alignist selections seek to explore the real circumstances of a specific corner of the world.
Ahmed still maintains a busy schedule as a reporter but tries to balance her time to keep The Alignist a thriving business. What ultimately helps her momentum is the continual discovery of compelling stories–and a desire to bypass tourist experiences for something entirely more immersive.