There is an old saying: Cairo writes, Beirut prints, and Baghdad reads. Books have played essential roles in the Arab world’s intellectual scene, and bookshops in Syria and Lebanon flourished in the 1960s and 70s. However, readers’ relationships with books have changed in modern times; scholars and intellectuals no longer flock to bookstores as they did in the past. Instead, book publishing worldwide — particularly their physical print and sale — appear to be a dying trade in the digital age.
Bookstores and printing houses have long been vital to Arab culture as keystones to learning and food for intellectual thought, but changing times are shaking the foundations of decades-old cultural landmarks. Many bookstores have closed, replaced by headquarters for exchange companies, cafes, or shoe stores. The closure of Syria’s prestigious Nobel bookshop in Damascus, which opened its doors in 1970 and shut them for the last time this September, rekindled fears for the future of Arab bookstores and the book publishing industry.
Nobel is just one of several bookstores shutting their doors. Other prominent stores like the Maysalun bookshop and Al-Yaqza bookshop shut down years before it. Dar Damascus bookshop, established in 1954, shut down in 2015. Al-Yaqza bookshop, founded in 1939, closed permanently in 2014. Al-Nouri bookshop, one of Syria’s oldest bookstores founded in 1930, is at risk of closing today, unable to keep up with rising expenses. Publishing houses that once printed hundreds of titles before the most recent Syrian war now only produce a fraction of that output. This phenomenon is not exclusive to Syria; across the Arab world, book sales and production have fallen. In Syria, stressors like the ongoing war and its consequences of economic hardship exacerbated by the collapse of the Syrian pound and economic sanctions mean books are a luxury few can afford. “No one is going to invest in a bookshop during the conflict,” said Sami Hamdan in the Al Arab newspaper. Khalil Haddad of Dar Oussama explains that the surge by 500% in printing costs and “logistical difficulties linked to power cuts” make books too expensive for a society where 90 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Exorbitant import and customs fees restrict a large percentage of the titles publishers can offer. Before the war, about 800 imported publications entered Syria’s shelves daily, and now this number has fallen to only five, according to Ziad Ghosn, the former director of Al Wahda Press, in the London-based Al Arab. Arab publishing houses publish fewer than 7,000 titles annually compared to the over 250,000 titles British publishers release, according to Al Fikr magazine. With the difficulty of securing new books, many Arab publishing houses cannot build credibility. Despite the relative increase in freedom of expression in some countries, differing publishing and censorship laws continue to stifle the variety of books available for market. Restrictions and bans imposed for political or religious reasons prohibit Arab readers from accessing many essential publications. This sort of censorship, combined with the costly shipping, private, governmental, and customs fees factored into the bookshop’s retail pricing, has pushed readers to secure books in more accessible or affordable venues, whether through book fairs or online.
Technology and the increasing popularity of e-books pose one of the most significant threats to Arab distributors. Hamdan points out, “Technology has pushed entire generations towards electronic books, and has kept them away from paper books… The war destroyed the remnants of a cultural scene that had already retreated. We were not immune to the global shift towards digitization, but during the war, no one wanted to invest their money in a library.” When physical books proved too expensive for the average person, many turned to digital libraries and even forgeries. The Arab world’s lack of clear regulations on copyright has allowed for plagiarism, copyright infringement, and the illegal distribution of many books online or reprinted unofficially.
Among other mounting struggles, creative brain-drain has reduced the number of writers and readers. Samar Haddad, the owner of the Syrian publishing house Dar Atlas (founded in 1955), noticed that most of her readers emigrated as the war continued. Some bookstore owners like Maan Abdel Salam, the owner of Etana bookshop, also moved abroad. For those who remain, rising poverty and illiteracy have fed a social aversion towards reading.
In countries next door, books are not faring any better. In Beirut, once hailed as the ‘printing press of the Arab world,’ book production is declining as the market continues to shift with Arab countries relying on their own local publishing houses, according to Adel Nassar in Al Modon. Lebanon currently faces an economic meltdown and the continued devaluation of the Lebanese lira. Today’s cost of a book amounts to 200,000 pounds, the equivalent of 10 U.S. dollars, when previously that same amount was equal to 15,000 pounds, according to Rania al-Moallem of the publishing house Dar al-Saqi in Al-Sharq al-Awsat. Like others, she had no other choice but to reduce employee hours and cut publications by half.
Lebanon’s publishing houses also face surging costs in diesel, increasing the costs of shipping, as well as a lack of electricity, severely affecting office and printing operations. Dar al-Adab avoids raising the prices of its books and instead adopts the burden of additional expenses, cutting into its profit, says Rana Idriss, Dar al-Adab’s director, in Al-Sharq al-Awsat.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic put even more pressure on the struggling industry. While the desire to read increased during the lockdown, the inability to afford books dampened prospects for book sales. According to Moallem, e-books are not popular in Lebanon and are not an option for those without a tablet or VISA card. The pandemic has also shut down many publishing houses’ most significant source of income: book fairs and exhibitions. Fatima Beydoun, the wife of the late publisher Riad Najib al-Rayess of Dar Riyad al-Rayess, explains the most significant blow is the cancellation of book displays that Lebanese publishing houses rely on. The high costs of renting a building to host events and low purchasing power make exhibitions too risky for investment. Emil Tian of Dar Hachette Antoine, which largely depends on exhibitions, experienced a 70% decline in sales. Like Dar al-Adab, Dar Hachette Antoine did not increase its prices to accommodate the crashing market; instead, they reduced prices by 55%. Still, the situation shows no sign of relief, with employees forced to work from home.
Arab publishing appears to be on the cusp of transformation. Arab Renaissance House’s Nisreen Kreidieh suggested that the internet and new technology will be an important transitional stage for the format of publication. Despite publishing houses’ reliance on exhibitions, the public no longer depends on them as sources for books with other alternatives widely available, like virtual fairs.
Though the outlook appears bleak for Arab book vendors, many are still determined to uphold the legacy of a bygone era. Haddad, who inherited Dar Atlas from her father, Simon Haddad, refuses to close the publishing house. Now operating from a small basement with one part-time employee, she endeavors to publish at least seven titles a year, compared to 25 in the years before the war. Though the Nouri family was forced to shut down another bookshop, the historical Al-Nouri bookshop still stands, hoping to remain for generations to come.
In Egypt, some bookstores are determined to beat the odds. Cairo’s Diwan Bookstore, founded in 2002 by sisters Nadia and Hind Wassef and their friend Nihal Schawky has stood through Egypt’s political upheavals, from the 2011 Arab Spring and resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s ruler since 1981, and the 2012 election of Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi, who was overthrown a year later by the Egyptian army led by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, who remains president since 2014. Though the Wassef sisters left Cairo for England, wary of Egypt’s uncertain future, Schawky remained to keep the bookstore going. Bookstores in Cairo are an anomaly, as Egypt experiences low literacy rates, and reading for pleasure is not common, in the words of Siobhán O’Grady in the Washington Post. Few take on the high financial risk of opening a bookstore on top of dealing with the country’s bureaucracy and government censors. Though Diwan has lost several of its storefronts, it maintains its legacy, hosting book launches and book signings — one of the few to do so in Egypt — giving it a reputation as a shop that “transformed the experience and possibility of being a writer in Egypt,” according to Egyptian author Yasmine El Rashidi, as cited in the Washington Post. Nadia Wassef writes in her memoir, “Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller,” “I feel like Diwan is the child of Cairo... She’s survived; she’s gotten bruised quite a few times, but haven’t we all? Isn’t that what life is about? It’s about endurance — and you soldier on.”
The publishing houses of Lebanon cling to the same perseverance. Dar Hachette Antoine’s Emil Tian answered, “We do not know when asked about the future. No plans, no expectations. We win by just being able to keep going.” Dar al-Adab’s Rana Idriss insists: “The death of culture in Lebanon is forbidden. We believe in a better future.”
Hardly one can recall a time when the Arab book was healthy or not in a crisis. There have always been complaints against authors and publishers, a lack of libraries, or government censorship. But what has hit the Arab Levant during the past decade revealed the book crisis compounded with the effects of the pandemic and other economic and political difficulties since the onset of the Arab Spring, the actual magnitude of some of these crises leading some countries to experience famine. In the face of these hardships, these publishers and bookshops prove to be a faint glimmer of hope for the future of the industry.
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