A Book Fair Writes an Old Story: How a Poster — And Regional Politics — Sank Effort to Invigorate Lebanon’s Publishing Industry

Elie Chalala
Artwork of the late Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani displayed in the Beirut Book Fair.

Book publishers, journalists, authors, and cultural activists received a large blow earlier this month. The anticipated return of the Beirut International and Arab Book Fair was met with disappointment and anger as violence broke out over Hezbollah’s presence through some publishing houses, which many argued overshadowed the spirit of the event. For over half a century, the book fair has held a celebrated place in Lebanon’s culture. Considered the oldest Arab fair, the tradition began in April 1956 at the American University of Beirut, becoming a prestigious event showcasing thousands of titles and visited by tens of thousands for decades since its launch. Not even ceasing during the Lebanese civil war, the only time the book fair was previously canceled was in December 2006 during the anti-government sit-ins in downtown Beirut. The outbreak of COVID-19 in March 2020, the explosion of Beirut’s port later that year, and the worsening economic crisis forced it to once again close its doors until the surprise announcement of its return, marking its 63rd session, running from March 3 to March 13.
Many remained cautious about the fair’s return. Following the destruction and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of the port explosion, the venue was a fraction of its former glory, reduced by over half of its original size of 10,000 square meters to 4,000. The exhibition was held next to the destruction wreaked by the port explosion, a symbolic statement about Beirut’s state. But event coordinators pushed for the return as a sign of hope, organizing the event under the slogan “Beirut’s Resilience, Beirut Doesn’t Break” — a wish for Beirut’s culture to endure against all odds. 
Fadi Tamim, co-organizer of the event and its public relations officer, told Farah-Silvana Kanaan in L’Orient-Le Jour, “This year, we are trying to make something out of nothing. Honestly, after corona, the Beirut blast, and the destruction of the venue downtown, we are trying to keep Lebanon culturally connected [to the world].” Participating publishers included 90 Lebanese publishing houses, four Syrian and Egyptian publishers, and 10 Iranian publishing houses. According to the online Al Mashreq, Iranian publishers were assigned two pavilions.
What should have been a breath of life into the Arab world’s deteriorating book industry — and in particular that of Lebanon — ended in failure as violence erupted in the venue, causing many attendees to leave early. An altercation between activist Shafiq Badr and Hezbollah supporters broke out over the imagery of the late Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani scattered throughout the venue. Images of Islamic Republic founder Rouhollah Khomeini, Iranian leader Ali Khamenei, and other Hezbollah leaders were also on display throughout the fair. According to Al Mashreq, on March 7, Badr reportedly punched Soleimani’s picture while shouting, “Beirut is free; Iran must leave!" before a group of youths violently retaliated against him. Other activists described the exhibition as a “Tehran Book Fair,” according to the online news website Middle East 24.
The violence was not the first hiccup the event encountered. Two days earlier, the BIKAR Beirut band’s performance was forced to stop playing in the middle of the song “Ya Beirut” after book fair organizers cut off power in their hall. The band’s director, Hala Ramadan, revealed to Al Arabiya that organizers told her that Iranian publishing houses were disturbed by the music. The publishers claimed the music and other patriotic songs about Beirut “conflicted with their principles.”
Hezbollah’s influence over a once-beloved pride and joy of Lebanon now dampens hopes for future book fairs. Novelist, critic, and playwright Elias Khoury said the exhibition showcases “the systemic destruction of Beirut’s many faces and its culture, for which the city is most famous,” as cited by Al Mashreq. Novelist Lina Kreidieh commented, “What does Soleimani have to do with the fair and books, and what cultural symbolism does he represent? He was not a poet or a writer…I would understand if a picture of a writer, poet, or novelist... is displayed as part of the fair's activities but not one of Soleimani and what he represents.” Hezbollah’s pervasive presence represented “symptoms of the political, cultural, and social wear and tear of a structure destined to fall, and of the symptoms of a comprehensive collapse that will inevitably pave the way for the emergence of another entity” — in art, morals, ideas, and media, according to Al Modon.
In its glory days, Beirut was the cultural heart of artistic expression, whether in its dozens of concerts, hundreds of art and book exhibitions, or non-stop theatrical performances. “Not a single day in Beirut was without work, activity, shows, or cultural meetings,” in the words of Youssef Bazzi in Al Modon, “But the most important thing was not in the ‘quantity,’ but in the quality of what was accomplished, composed, and presented. That time is completely over. That vitality that was pulsing in the city’s streets and space, emerging from its images, sounds, and languages, from its newspapers, pulpits, and platforms, its printing houses and galleries, its sidewalks, cafes, and forums…it has been extinguished.”
The event rubs salt in already-festering wounds afflicting a suffering Arab book industry. International book fairs make up a vital outlet — and perhaps the only savior — of the industry. According to Al Arab (London), while publishing houses in the West rely 75% on government support policies and only 25% on readers to purchase their titles, Arab publishers rely 90% on readers commercially.
Both Lebanese and Arab book industries suffered many blows from the rise of the internet, globalization, and electronic publishing, and worsened to a crawl after the outbreak of COVID-19 forced the cancellation of book fairs and exhibitions. Book shops lost much of their patronship due to the economic crisis, leading to far fewer sales and the closure of several bookstores, many historical. Readers, whose purchasing power received a large blow, directed their meager wages towards more urgent life necessities, like food, housing, and education. With less financial profit, publishing houses produced fewer new titles, and constant electrical outages staggered printing operations (more about the economic crisis’ impact on Arab bookstores and publishers can be read in “Arab Publishing Industry Drowning in Tsunami of Economic, Social Crises,” Al Jadid, Vol. 25, Nos. 80-81, 2021). The Arab world publishes roughly 40,000 to 60,000 titles in books, periodicals, and scientific journals, of which scientific books only make up 20%, far lower than the rates of global countries — a large hit to academics, according to Al Arab.
The Arab paperback book industry was already struggling against the growing presence of the Internet and social media. The ability to communicate, exchange information, and disseminate resources quickly and easily led to the emergence of electronic publishing platforms, which grew especially popular among the younger generation, as cited by the English Al Arabiya. The Internet also complicated effective legal regulation of intellectual property rights, putting publishers at risk of losing their works to piracy and plagiarism.
On one hand, the internet and online technology offer some benefits to novelists and researchers. Electronic publishing platforms have created a more accessible means of publishing by opening the doors to self-publishing. Students and academics alike can access resources with a simple click. On the other hand, the large percentage of illiteracy in the Arab world and low computer literacy negate most perks that the platform offers, making the revitalization of the paperback book industry more important than ever.
Exhibitions and book fairs serve as the primary means of profit for many struggling publishers, with famous fairs like the International Book Fair in Algeria, Cairo International Book Fair, and Tunis Book Fair bringing thousands of new titles each year — but if the recent failure of the Beirut Book Fair says anything, it’s that the Arab world’s book industry may have yet another dagger in its side in preserving its cultural and intellectual future.

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