(in: Fehras Publishing Practices, When The Library Was Stolen, 2017)
The artist’s publication When The Library Was Stolen, on the Private Archive of Abd Al-Rahman Munif, was issued in the Spring of 2017 by the artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices. It consists of 544 pages and is published bilingually in English and Arabic. It was funded by the Villa Romana in Florence, the Senat Department for Culture and Europe in Berlin, and with the support of Mophradar aisbl in Brussels.
The publication proposes a re-reading of the Arab private library archive from many perspectives. This reading interweaves the process of documentation with personal and research experiences. When the Library Was Stolen is made of three parts. The first part presents the photographs of the library. These are the key documentary materials that set the foundations for the content of the publication. The second part includes an index documenting the publications of the library, and the third features selected essays addressing the three topics: library as space, publication practices in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and archiving publications.
In the first essay, Suad Kawadri, widow of Abd Al-Rahman Munif, outlines the characteristics of the library she and her late husband shared in their home in Damascus. Her essay addresses Munif’s life and migrations as well as the libraries he established in many cities across historical periods. It also addresses the way he collected books during his travels, some of which ended up at the Damascus library. Kawadri describes the sensory space of the library and its shelves; she tells us about Munif’s writing experiences and his relationship to the library and concludes with her personal reflections on the future of the library.
Another essay pertaining to the library as space features the experience of the radio program A Visit to Someone’s Library, developed and presented by Nadia Saleh from 1973 on Egyptian public radio. For three decades, Saleh visited the libraries of intellectuals, writers, artists, and scholars; her conversations with the owners considered the nuanced stories embedded in the libraries. The program apprehends the library as an intangible yet aural world, an imaginary world of meanings and knowledge. The program sparks the imagination to envisage the library and connect the dots. In researching the episodes of the program, we stumbled upon an interview titled, The Library That Was. It features an interview with the late Egyptian literary figure Yahya Haqqi in his emptied library after he gifted his books to Al-Minya University in Egypt. The transcription is a dialogue between Haqqi and Saleh in his empty library, and it addresses how he valued collecting books and letting go of them. It also touches on the role of the library as a historical space of thought and criticism and as a motivator for cultural practice. This episode offers another instance of the disappearance and reappearance, of the vanishing and emerging of publications. In this case, it was the individual decision of an intellectual to let go of his publications so that they could reappear and grow in a different context, in the environment of a public library.
In his academic essay, Frank Mermier delineates the specificities of Arab publishing and discusses publishing practice between the Levant and the Arab Maghreb as well as the political ideologies that accompanied publishing trends. Mermier also turns his attention to censorship, in addition to its geographical borders, and the impact of wars and ongoing crises in the region. The essay also addresses publishing as an alternative cultural project that works to decentralize knowledge from the capitals by circulating culture to the margins, as a project that opens a space to launch literary forms and subdued languages.
Another contribution to this publication is an interview with the publisher Hassan Yaghi. In a conversation with Yaghi, he speaks about his experience as a publisher working between the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa and about the movement of publishers across historical eras. With Yaghi as our guide, we can also evaluate Arab publishing and its challenges today.
The last essay, Libraries on Quicksand, by Amer Bader Hassoun turns to the matter of archiving publications. Hassoun traveled from country-to-country in exile, and he writes about his libraries, established here and there, that he had to let go of one after the other with every new move until he finally settled down in Damascus and then Baghdad. Hassoun shares stories about his incessant collecting. His text considers the book industry – trading, buying, obsessive acquisition, loss, and the personal relationships that get tangled in the mix. He describes his experience with the magazine Al-Ayam (Bygones) and the appendix Ayam Al-Sham (Damascus Bygones), which was the mechanism of his own reading of Arab newspaper archives that he had collected over decades and then used them to encourage the reader to deepen her understanding of the present by reflecting on history, as embodied in the publication as an archive.