Bashir al-Daouk (1931-2007) In Memoriam: Farewell to Publisher Hero

Elie Chalala

As happens in the West, Arab culture often celebrates authors at the expense of publishers. Also like their Western counterparts, Arab publishers tend toward commercialism and self-interest, jeopardizing the public’s best interest. And, typically, they are only too ready to abandon authors of manuscripts deemed “controversial,” as well as those on whose behalf they receive threats from governments or non-governmental groups. But Lebanon, and even the Arab world, prides itself on the exception that was Dr. Bashir al-Daouk, the late owner of the publishing house Dar Al Talia and the monthly magazine, Dirasaat Arabiyya.

Daouk fought silently with exceptional courage against the extravagant commercialization of publishing, as well as state censorship and repression. He was never hesitant about taking financial, legal and political risks. One of his most celebrated authors, the noted Syrian philosopher Sadeq Jalal al-Azm, was actually imprisoned in 1969 for his book, “Criticism of Religious Thought.” Sued more than once since founding Dar Al Talia in 1960, Daouk’s entanglement with the Lebanese courts was still not resolved at the time of his death – he was sued for publishing Adonis al-Akra’s book “When My Name Became 16,” a story of the author’s imprisonment during the Syrian control of Lebanon.

The list of the causes Daouk championed is long – anti-colonialism, Baathism, Arab nationalism, Palestine, social and economic justice, and women’s rights, just to name a few. While the space to fully detail Daouk’s political and intellectual interests is lacking, his most prominent cause, at least in my opinion, is the self-reflection and self-criticism that he encouraged following the Arab defeat in 1967. His stance was reflected in Dar Al Talia’s numerous publishings on the subject, as well as in the hundreds of studies that found a home on the pages of his journal, Dirasaat Arabiyya, which he founded in 1965. These contributions were paramount in exposing the social, political, and economic conditions that led to the disastrous setback of 1967.

Living in Lebanon during these eventful years, I was privy to the self-education conducted by an entire generation of Lebanese – an education whose most refined tools were the many books and the studies put out by Dar Al Talia. I see it as a period critical to my intellectual formation, and to that of many others. The words of Lebanese poet and journalist Zahi Wehbe in Al Hayat sum up Daouk’s influence best: “In our villages the only means of entertainment were the books. We had neither stadiums, clubs, nor theaters – there was nothing for entertainment except books. Some of my generation who came from villages competed with one another in terms of who could collect the most books. Daouk was the spiritual father of my generation – though I knew him only as a name in print and member of the avant-guard.”

In spite or perhaps because of the turbulence of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Arab authors chose to stay home, having their works published in Beirut rather than London and Paris.  That they could do so at all is a tribute to the willingness of publishers like Bashir Daouk, who tirelessly defended the author and stood up to the censor. Those who knew Daouk say that he was greatly saddened by the current state of affairs in the Arab world, where the author is not only pursued by the state and terrorized by extremists of all shapes and stripes, but also forced en masse into exile. He was equally grieved by the setbacks of the independent publishing movement in Lebanon, which coincided with the demise of leftist trends in the Arab world. Khalil Ahmad Khalil wrote in As Safir newspaper: “He leaves us today at a time where sectarianism is on the rise in the ruins of nationalism.” Daouk’s death, as put by Yassine Rifaieh in Al Hawadeth magazine, was “as if a protest of the fragmented state of Arabism and the Arab state, for he was a man who built his dreams upon unity and the rebirth of civilization.”

Although his positions on a wide range of issues that dominated Arab discourse after 1967 were known to his friends, and even to some of the readers of Dar Al Talia publications, he was hardly a partisan publisher. Quite the opposite; Daouk was laudably open-minded, frequently publishing manuscripts with which he disagreed. And during the tumultuous and polarizing years that followed the 1967 defeat, it was an extreme rarity to find a publisher willing to do this. Despite his identification with pan-Arab Baathist ideology, Daouk’s publications gave no special emphasis to any one perspective.  In fact, he was a pluralist before the term gained credibility in the Arab world since the 1990’s. Daouk’s pluralism, which operated within the parameters of progressive and critical discourse, need not be minimized for polarization and partisanship characterized progressive politics inasmuch as politics in general. Thus Daouk’s rise above the sundry political factions operating in the Arab world was something of an anomaly.

Commending such exceptionalism, especially in light of the debacle of 1967, the cultural editor of As Safir, Abbas Beydoun, writes: “His [Daouk’s] publishing projects were the center for the new, the courageous, and the problematic in Arab culture. In terms of authorship and translation, all new major productions were welcomed. Dirasaat Arabiyya…became also a forum of the new, readily disseminating things avant-garde, even if they were Marxist, which Daouk himself was not. However, he didn’t need to be a Marxist to welcome and encourage such discourse…” Making a similar observation is Miriam Shuqayr Abou Jawdeh in An Nahar: “Dar Al Talia was a refuge of futuristic and leftist thinking and Dirasaat Arabiyya was a forum for freedom and difference.”

Despite Daouk’s embrace of pan-Arab Baathist ideology, it would be unfair to analyze his legacy in terms of the policies adopted by the official Syrian and Iraqi Baathists. Ideologues should not be judged or defined in terms of the convenient interpretations, and even perversions, that their beliefs are subjected to by political regimes – in doing so, one misses the singularity of the individual, as well as the actual content of his beliefs. “Daouk silently passed away in his exile; his silence was like that of many great souls whose exile was the result of tyranny and oppression…He was a party member, though non-dogmatic, who advocated freedom, liberation, and change prior to the rise of murderous Arab regimes that would convert such ideals into titles for repression and killing. The regimes collapsed, but the ideas survived within the people, and those ideas remained with Daouk ,” wrote poet Paul Shaoul in Al Mustaqbal newspaper. On the same topic, Abd al-Hameed al-Ahdab wrote in An Nahar, “Daouk was the beautiful face of Al Baath, an ideologue who gave much and took nothing in return, save the comfort derived from his strong identification with Pan-Arabism. He made his ideology beautiful at a time when ugly Arab ideologies were bringing about tribal chaos, bloody authoritarianism, and great oppression to political dissenters they subsequently termed ‘infidels.’”

Daouk was never parochial in his politics; he was both a prominent economist, holding a professorship at the American University of Beirut, and an enlightened, progressive, and critical thinker, who co-founded in the mid 1970’s the Center for Arab Unity Studies, where he remained a member of its board of trustees and executive committee until his death. In addition to publishing books, Daouk also put out one of the most important cultural monthlies in the Arab world, Dirasaat Arabiyya. Launched in the mid-1960’s and circulating until a decade ago, this journal not only featured ideological exchanges and introductions to world literature, but also helped the Arab reader stay abreast of the latest intellectual developments in the West and the East through timely translations.

Daouk was a man of special qualities. Though very important, he was not popular. By popularity I mean that his pictures were not plastered on the pages of daily newspapers and magazines, nor were they glued to billboards like those of a political candidate, or, more notoriously, like the photos of political parties and militia leaders. Talal Salman, the publisher of As Safir newspaper, testifies to this quality of Daouk: “We find no picture of Bashir al-Daouk except in the writings of Ghada Samman. There is no picture of him in the archives of any newspaper or magazine, nor are there any audio or video recordings of him –  one cannot even find his likeness captured in a family picture with his beloved wife.”

A similar observation is made by Rafiq Abi-Younes in As Safir: “Daouk was rarely present in terms of positions and pictures and he rarely played a role in the Baathist fiery scenes of coups and divisions…” Writing in An Nahar, Mariam Shuqayr Abou Jawdeh captured one side of Daouk: “Behind Daouk’s silence there was wisdom; and behind his calmness there was dignity.”

That tendency to shun the limelight was deliberate and genuine, for he was interested more in others than in himself. Friends who remembered him after his death revealed many things about Daouk that had been previously unknown. They wrote of his generosity, many charitable activities, and publishing investments that brought little financial return. A great philanthropist who funded numerous surgeries for Lebanese patients in Paris, as well as providing assistance for needy students, Daouk’s only condition was that his name should be withheld, wrote Abd al-Hameed al-Ahdab in An Nahar.

His generosity in the realm of politics was especially noticeable. “His intellectual output exceeded that of most countries, and his financial sacrifices were greater than those of most political parties and movements,” wrote Naji Aloush, who worked closely with Daouk both in Dirasaat Arabiyya and Dar Al Talia. “Daouk is considered the unsung soldier of Arab culture,” wrote the Syrian journalist Bahnan Yamin in the Los Angeles-based Al Arab newspaper.

We frequently speak of legacies in terms of authors and books, with the idea that authors’ legacies are established through one or more of their written works. In other words, the death of an author or publisher becomes physical not intellectual. This is also true for Bashir Daouk, although defining his legacy is not quite so simple. Although he was the author of only two books – “Socialism of the Baath and its Economic Method,” and “The Taxation System of Lebanon” –  he will be remembered for the thousands of books and articles his publishing house churned out. Also part of that legacy is that Daouk’s contributions as a publisher and editor of Dirasaat Arabiyya will continue to furnish understanding of the debates that followed the 1967 defeat.

Daouk’s patriotism, or his love for Lebanon, was not lost to many of his friends. “Although he lived in Paris for more than 25 years, he refused French citizenship because it violated his beliefs. He refused to carry any citizenship other than his Lebanese citizenship,” wrote Abd al-Hameed al-Ahdab in An Nahar. Another observer of Daouk’s nationalism and patriotism, is poet Paul Shaoul of Al Mustaqbal newspaper: “His being away from his beloved Beirut and Lebanon didn’t shake his resolve nor did it distort his sense of belonging to Arabist and nationalist projects that were characterized, above all, by their democratic values and progressive values.”

The term feminist has been widely misused and abused, both in the Arab world and the West. Thus I am reluctant to call Bashir Daouk feminist, lest I add to the confusion surrounding this term. What can be clearly and unambiguously stated is that Bashir Daouk was a foremost champion of women’s rights. The supporting evidence is abundant and compelling, and comes both from his publishing house and journal, as well as his beloved wife, the noted Syrian-Lebanese novelist Ghada Samman. Gender issues made their presence noticeable in scores of titles published by Dar Al Talia and in studies that appeared in his monthly magazine. The selections represent both original works by Arab authors and translations of books by non-Arabs.

Courageous, outspoken, and yes, a feminist novelist in her own right, Ghada Samman has shared some of her stories and encounters with Bashir Daouk that took place both before and after she married him. In all of her stories or anecdotes, the image that emerges of Bashir Daouk is a man who showed great sensitivity toward women. When she met him in Beirut during the summer of 1969, she was working as a journalist for Al Hawadeth, a Lebanese weekly.  Her subject at the time was the duality of Arab revolutionaries in their reactionary behavior toward women. Samman wanted to understand the gap between their ideological rhetoric about supporting woman’s liberation and their actual reactionary behavior. She was given a list of activists to interview which included Bashir Daouk. She met Bashir Daouk and the two were married within two months. Daouk meant what he said, no inconsistency between words and deeds, Samman wrote in “Bashir Daouk: As if it’s Farewell,” a book that came out after his death and which included an introduction by Samman, as well as other articles about him by Arab intellectuals and friends.

After spending 40 years together, their union was severed not by the cancer that Daouk had battled for two years, but, rather, by the heart attack that took him in the American Hospital in Paris in mid-October of 2007.


This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vols. 13/14, nos. 58/59 (2007/2008)

Copyright (c) 2007-2008 by Al Jadid