The Middle Is Losing Ground

The focus on the Arab world at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair has prompted not only positive expectations, but a fair share of skepticism as well. Hassan Dawud takes a look at the status of the book in Arab society.

The focus on the Arab world at the upcoming Frankfurt Book Fair has prompted not only positive expectations, but a fair share of skepticism as well. Hassan Dawud, a writer and the editor of the arts pages of the Lebanese daily paper "Al-Mustaqbal," here takes a look at the status of the book in Arab society.

photo: AP
Book Fair in Cairo

​​At the beginning of the eighties a publisher who was a friend of mine asked me to look over some manuscripts that had been submitted to him and tell him my opinion.

Although the publishing house had only been in business for two or at the most three years, there was already a huge stack of manuscripts that had been sent to Beirut from many different Arab countries. And what’s more: my friend had also supplemented his extensive list of publications with translations from other languages, including Japanese, which to my knowledge had never before been translated into Arabic.

He showed me the handwritten lists of books that he had sold in various Arab countries. Morocco: 500 copies, Iraq: 500 copies, Sudan: 200 copies, Jordan – and so on. The entire edition for a single book came to 3,000 copies.

Beirut as publishing center

At that time, Beirut was the center of the Arab publishing world, and for several years Lebanon’s publishing revenues exceeded those made in the apple export business, always one of the country’s economic mainstays.

The Lebanese newspapers, mired in political and ideological battles at the time, placed a great deal of importance on the culture of books. Some privately published literary magazines even appeared, although many didn’t survive for more than a few issues.

In those years Lebanon seemed once and for all to have taken over the leading position in the Arab book market once occupied by Egypt. Egypt was content to publish primarily books by its own authors, because Lebanese, Iraqi and Syrian readers no longer accepted the Egyptian editions, probably due not least of all to the poor quality of the printing.

Beirut had become the capital of the Arab publishing industry. Perhaps this was due to the fact that Beirut was at that time the most open Arab capital, the city that was the easiest to reach, and the place with the greatest freedom of the press – a magnet for academics from all over the Arab world.


Beirut forfeited many of these advantages during its civil war; why should it continue to be or become once again the capital of the Arab book?

By now the names of other publishers were heard more frequently. Some of them came from countries for which we first had to get used to the idea that they were producing books and might actually represent some serious competition in this market.

In Morocco a publishing house was established whose publications initially reached as far as Beirut, true to the tradition that an Arab book is printed for the entire Arab world. But soon the distribution of these books waned; it was only possible to obtain them at conferences where authors met up with other authors.

Private publishing companies were founded in Syria as well, where for many years the Syrian cultural ministry and the Syrian authors’ association had been the only publishers; but these books as well only found their way into other Arab countries at book fairs. Cyprus also produced a few publishing houses (which however shut down almost as soon as they opened).

The "Arab book market" disappears

All of this constituted evidence of intensive publishing activities, but these gradually lost their center or had to do without one. An "Arab book market" no longer existed as it once had; it was not simply that the center of Arab publishing had moved to another city, as it had once shifted from Cairo to Beirut.

And those countries that had earlier imported books from these centers and never established their own publishing houses, like Iraq and Sudan, could no longer afford to purchase imported books since by this time their populations were simply too poor.

This development was accompanied more or less openly by nationalistic currents that people had once regarded with skepticism. Everyone had had enough of the catastrophic material and moral losses incurred as a result of the various "pan-Arabic" confrontations. People were tired of empty promises and no longer believed in the pipe dream of Arab unification.

As far as culture is concerned, the establishment of a new Arab intellectual center no longer seems within reach. Most of the books that were printed in laughable numbers in Beirut were doomed to languish in warehouses there for years.

Lost culture of reading

"No one reads here," is one of the things the children of our relatives who have emigrated to Europe notice when they come back to visit Lebanon. We never see anyone reading, they remark, while in Europe people are constantly reading – in the subway, on the bus, or sitting in the park.

Three years ago a private educational institute conducted a survey of students at a university humanities department in Lebanon and discovered that most of them did not possess any books other than those on the curriculum, and did not acquire any during the whole three years of their studies.

Back in the sixties students belonging to various dogmatic and political groups had to read books if they wanted to be a part of things. Now things have changed – culture is not one of life's requirements anymore, just as political groups for example are no longer formed based on a certain cultural point of view.

Culture can be found on television

People blame satellite television for the lack of interest in culture. After all, you can find everything on the TV screen, even culture.

We found out what his means from a poet-friend at the Jordanian culture festival in Djarash. The festival consisted primarily of a performance by singer Nancy Agram, whose fame can surely be attributed in part to her scantily clad appearances and whose songs all Jordanians know by heart. The poets at the festival, on the other hand, remained strangers to the public.

There is no urgent need for books anymore. An Arab book from a particular country practically never leaves that country, and might at best find its way over the border in the hands of a few intellectuals.

I don’t know if it would still be possible today for a new artistic or cultural current to have the kind of effect on Arab culture that for example Iraqi lyric poetry once had in the mid-forties, renewing the whole world of Arab poetry. We can probably not expect this from anyone anymore.

The canon of intolerance

But there are still readers out there who we have not yet taken into consideration, just as they have taken no notice of us in any form. One of them is Qais Ibrahim, an Iraqi Kurd and a member of the Ansar al-Islam group, who was arrested when he tried to carry out a suicide attack in Iraq.

Although this young man is now sitting in prison, he has by no means retreated from the position he stated to a reporter from the "Al-Hayat" newspaper: namely, that elections in Iraq would make the entire population a target for suicide attacks. This is because democratic elections would mean that a heretical people would themselves be electing their heretical leader, and such an apostasy would have to be punished by death.

It would appear that the kind of reading material favored by this young man is now playing a leading role in the Arab world. In pure high Arabic, absolutely free of any colloquialisms, Qais Ibrahim states for the record:

A different kind of reading material

"We have read the teachings of Sheik Amin az-Zawahiri, Sheik Abd al-Munim Abd al-Halim (Abu Bashir) and Sheik Abu Qutada in London, as well as of the scholars of Jamaa Islamiya in Egypt; and I am familiar with some of the treatises of the 'Armed Group for the Proclamation of Islam and War' under the leadership of Hassan Hattab and Rashid Abu Turab in Algeria, as well as the manuscripts of the 'Army of Aden' in Yemen and some associations in Jordan, as well as the 'Group of Fighting Advanced Forces' in Syria."

In this case we can definitely speak of a culture common to all Arab countries, whereby Ibrahim forgot to include some non-Arab ones, such as Pakistan, Afghanistan and Indonesia. Here, the Arab world is reunited; and perhaps its reach is now even farther than back when it was still literature that brought Arabs together.

We of the old guard of readers know next to nothing about this literature, although it exists side-by-side with us - just as its representatives and readers know or want to know nothing about us or to tell us what they know.

It's not only a question of books. Our music does not reach them either; they hate it and find it heretical. This is why they have their own music, their own cinema. They are the new dogmatists in our countries, who can tolerate only a single creed.

Hassan Dawud

© Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 8 September 2004

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida