Arab Publishing in Troubled Times

by Franck Mermier

This essay was written for the artist’s publication When The Library Was Stolen, on the Private Archive of Abd Al-Rahman Munif in the spring of 2017. The publication was issued by the artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices. It consists of 544 pages and is published bilingually in English and Arabic and divided into three chapters.
This first chapter features selected essays addressing topics such as the library as a space, publication practices in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and archiving publications with contributions from Amer Bader Hassoun (Archivist, publisher, and collector), Suad Kawadri (The wife of Abd Al-Rahman Munif), Hassan Yaghi (Publisher), Franck Mermier (Anthropologist), Fehras Publishing Practices & Nadia Saleh (Radio Producer). The second chapter includes a catalogue documenting approx. 10.000 publications of the library and the third presents the photographs of Munif’s library which are the key documentary materials that set the foundations for the content of the publication.

Features of Arabic Publishing

The world of Arabic publishing, comprised of various national and regional markets, is organized according to dynamics of hegemony and dependence, wherein the countries of the Maghreb depend on publishing in the Arab East, which in turn dominates the markets of the former. The markets of the Arab East, meanwhile, remain practically impenetrable, accessible to publishers in the Maghreb only through collaborations with their counterparts in the Arab East. If we consider the numbers, the Arab East boasts a much greater number of publishers relative to the Maghreb. What distinguishes Arabic publishing from the industry in the West is that, on the one hand, there is no major capitalistic drive and that, on the other, there are many small-scale publishing houses. Only a handful of publishers, from Morocco to Kuwait, manage to cover the entirety of the Arab, or Islamic, market. Moreover, there are only a few big distribution companies that cover the entire Arab region, a fact which further limits the visibility and exposure of many publications.
Publishing has also reflected the ideological rivalries – both inter-Arab and American-Soviet – in the Arab region. These rivalries shaped the media landscape well before the advent of satellite television and the Internet in the 1990s, and they had a notable impact on the radio (the establishment of the Voice of the Arabs in Cairo under Nasser, for instance) and even publishing. During the Cold War, the American Franklin Delano Roosevelt Foundation and the Soviet Union bankrolled translations in Beirut and Cairo, respectively. In many countries, such as Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iraq, and South Yemen, the publishing industry became a strategic sector through which the state could hold a stranglehold on the trade of books. The nationalization of the industry in Egypt in the 1960s led to the growth of the publishing sector in Beirut which supplanted Cairo as the hub of the Arab book market.
In Beirut, due to the limited interventions of the Lebanese state in the realm of culture, in contrast to all the other Arab countries, and to the liberal political system, there emerged a proxy Arab public sphere wherein the publishing scene reflected the political trends and ideologies prevailing throughout the Arab region. In fact, after the 1967 defeat and the installation of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1969 as well as of the radical left in Beirut, a number of politically engaged publishers were founded in the city. The establishment of the PLO and its various and sundry institutions in Beirut kindled the emergence of a publishing network. Its Arab character enhanced the cultural influence of the city, where the terrain was fertile for the expression of inter-Arab ideological rivalries, expressed not only through the publishing scene but also through cultural institutions with an interest in publications, such as the Center for Arab Unity Studies, set up in Beirut in 1975. The city was a magnet for Arab intellectuals, artists, and publishers, seeking both access to the regional market and a working environment to eschew the restrictions of national censorship. Thanks to a certain freedom of expression unmatched in the region, Beirut became a laboratory of ideology and literature; indeed, the Lebanese capital, with its commercial prowess and liberal atmosphere, was the bloodline for the rest of the Arab region. The Lebanese book industry exported 90% of its output, an indication of the pluralistic society, in terms of language – with publications in Arabic, English, French, and Armenian – and of religion, with Christian, Sunni, and Shiite publishers. Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries where Persian works are translated into Arabic.
Since the 1980s, a number of factors have contributed to the rise of religious, Islamic books: the increase of petrol prices in countries of the Arab Peninsula and of their demands on the book market; the proliferation of Islamist ideologies following the successful Iranian Revolution; the oppression of leftist and Marxist movements in Egypt, Iraq, and Sudan; and the ideological and political bankruptcy of Arab nationalist regimes. Since the 1970s, Islamic and Islamist networks have been reinforced and had led to the growth of publishing clusters, with roots in various countries. The continual downturn in print runs, with the average for an initial run hovering between one-to-two thousand copies, does not seem to have a bearing on Islamic publications. This major segment of the publishing sector has grown continuously over the last three decades; however, some publishers have begun to complain that the competition had become too intense, with the same titles released by different publishers catering to a nearly saturated market. These trends in Islamic publishing result from the scatter of publishers across many countries and who, depending on ideological, sectarian, or merely commercial concerns, band together in matters of distribution and printing, thereby forming a so-called archipelago economy, yet another feature of the Arab publishing system.
The growth of private-sector publishers across the Arab region, at the turn of the 1990s, certainly impacted the status of the twin capitals of Arab books, Beirut and Cairo. A bloom in the national literature, beyond Egypt and Lebanon, was accompanied by the growth of new publishers. Nevertheless, Lebanese and Egyptian publishers, boasting prestigious catalogues and regional distribution, remain the gatekeepers of pan-Arab recognition.
In recent years, and marking a major historical shift, the Arab Gulf has played a significant role in promoting Arab culture, most notably by establishing prizes and launching translation projects. However, the magnitude of such cultural diplomacy is inversely proportional to the clout of these countries’ literary production and publishers’ ability to distribute outside their countries’ borders. The book fairs of Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, and Kuwait rank now among the top fairs, after the Cairo Book Fair which remains the biggest in the Arab world. The creation of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, modeled after and in partnership with London’s Man Booker Prize for Fiction, in Abu Dhabi in 2007, has nevertheless affirmed the new cultural role of the Arab Gulf since the first decade of the twenty-first century. This prize has a positive effect on the writers of the Arabian Peninsula, to whom it affords pan-Arab recognition. For example, Arab booker laureates include three Saudi authors (Abdo Khal in 2010, Raja Alem, joint-prize winner in 2011 and Muhamad Hasan Alwan in 2017), and the Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi in 2013. The prize had an important effect on the book market by creating pan-Arab bestsellers and facilitating their translation to languages across the world.

Censorship and Book Circulation

Censorship of Arab books reveals the balance of power between the various religious and political powers within the societies. The criteria and practices of censorship determine certain features of Arabic publishing, in terms of creation, distribution, and circulation. As Arab publishers often like to point out when discussing the obstacles of book distribution, the mere presence of various censorships means that the space of Arab culture is formed by the changing boundaries of censorship. The tree taboos – religion, politics, and sex – in the Arab region vary from country to country according to their level of liberalism. If we were to classify the countries in terms of freedom of expression, Lebanon, Tunisia, and Morocco would be considered at the top of the spectrum, while Saudi Arabia and Syria at the bottom. Nevertheless, there are some common denominators that include the prohibition of criticizing the ruler or the security or armed forces and questioning the territorial integrity of the nation. At both ends of the spectrum, the censorship criteria are more or less variable: In Ben Ali’s Tunisia, for instance, the state exercised strict vigilance towards Islamists books. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, some secularly inspired works are prohibited.
What can be termed as free zones of cultural production in the Arab world allows publishers to play with national borders. The existence of various book markets throughout the Arab region enables publishers to circumvent, at least partially, the restrictions of censorship. The regional book market and the system of Arab publishing are organized by the differences existing between the national censorships. This means that publishers play games to avoid or bypass them through the free zones of culture, whose scale and magnitude are constantly changing. In this regard, Beirut stands, more so than Cairo, as the regional cultural free zone due to the strength of its publishing sphere oriented toward the demands of the Arab market. In contrast to all the other Arab states, the Lebanese government has practically no role in the publishing sphere, a fact which has attracted numerous Arab publishers searching at once for access to the regional market and for escaping censorship. Before the Syria War, many Syrian publishers went to Lebanon to print books banned in their own country. Indeed, even the ex-Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlass, today living in exile in France, opened a publishing house, Dar al-Dhakira, in the 2000s in Beirut.
Several Saudi publishers have also established publishing houses in Beirut. Many Saudi novels are published outside of the Kingdom, notably in Beirut, Cairo, and Damascus. Similarly, Kuwaiti authors follow the same pattern and choose to publish in Lebanon and Egypt, but also in Bahrain. The latter represents a relative free zone within the Arabian Peninsula. In its capital, Manama, some bookstores sell books banned in Saudi Arabia which are bought by Saudi tourists who spend their weekends in Bahrain. At the same time, Bahraini publishers choose Beirut, when they risk a ban in their own country.

Warfare and Books

The first phase of the Arab revolts opened up unprecedented spaces of expression, capable of relieving, in some cases, the weight of censorship on books. While this is actually the case for Tunisia, the iron fist of the police regime in Egypt remained firm, but the revolution of 2011 contributed to the creation of cultural spaces, publishing houses, and bookstores.
During the era of Saddam Hussein, the politically oppressive regime drove numerous Iraqi to establish publishing houses in Europe, Syria, and Lebanon. Dar Al-Mada, directed by Fakhri Karim, a former communist party official in Iraq, was founded in Damascus and became an Arab publisher specializing in contemporary literature, social sciences, and translation. Dar Al-Mada moved to Baghdad after 2003. In Germany, Dar Al-Jamal was established in 1983 in Frankfurt by Khalid Al-Maali, while Sharq-Gharb Lil Nashr, directed by Amal Al-Jubouri and founded in 1989 in Baghdad as Dar Al-Masar, opened up a Berlin branch in 2004. Dar Al-Jamal today maintains offices in Beirut, and so does Al-Warraq of Majid Shubbar, based in London since 1993. Some Iraqi publishing houses, such as Dar Al-Hikma of Hazim Al-Samarrai and Muassassat Al-Rafid, linked to the Shiite opposition, were set up in London in the early 1990s. With the exception of Iraqi Shiite publishers who established offices in Beirut to escape the repression of Saddam Hussein, the security situation in the country still hampers the long-awaited return of publishers established abroad. The American invasion of Iraq in 2003 had dramatic consequences for the cultural sector, especially during the first years of the American occupation. A memorable example is the car bomb explosion on the renowned Al-Mutanabbi Street on March 5, 2007, which devastated the heart of this Baghdad book hub, a clustering of bookstores and used bookshops. The weaknesses of Iraqi publishing are not, however, a reflection of the vitality of intellectual production which is often published abroad in order to reach the wider audience of the Arab region.
The disastrous domestic wars in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Yemen have had dramatic consequences on the publishing sector in these countries, and publishers are encountering challenges in continuing their activities and selling their books. The impoverishment and forced displacement of populations, the suspension of air flights, and the destructive battles which, as we see in Syria, have not spared warehouses and printing presses, have led publishers to reduce the number of titles and of their print runs. They were also forced to transfer their premises to more secure areas or neighboring countries – Syrians to Lebanon, Libyans to Tunisia – and even to close down their businesses. With the deterioration of economic and security circumstances, street booksellers have increased their activities as a result of the dismantlement of many private libraries, a phenomenon observed on the streets of Damascus, Sana’a, Baghdad, and other cities.

Publishing as an Alternative Cultural Project

Despite the terrible situation, new publishing houses have emerged in the last decade, heralding innovative cultural projects in the fields of literature and social sciences. They can be found in the Arabian Peninsula as well as in North Africa and that indicates the reinforcement of the polycentric development of the private publishing sector which started in the 1990s. Similarly, the emergence of new writers coincided with the rise of literary genres such as science fiction, youth literature, and autobiographic writings in addition to the rise of fiction writing.
While religious and Islamic books play an extremely significant role in Arab publishing, in many countries, the publishing sector provides a niche market for intellectual entrepreneurs, who are often dissidents and opposition figures. In the 1990s Syria, many opposition figures turned to the cultural sector after their release from prison, either through working in translation or in publishing. After 2011, Syrians established Arabic bookstores in Istanbul and created cultural spaces in other capitals such as Beirut, Berlin, London, and Paris.
In the Gulf countries, publishing has enabled some cultural entrepreneurs to express alternative voices in the public sphere, by publishing translations of foreign books and by promoting young local authors. In Egypt, the publishing sector has developed with new innovative projects outside of Cairo.
In the countries of North Africa, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria, the publishing sector, characterized by the presence of Arabic and French publications, has seen in recent years an increase in both Arabic language publishing and in the number of publishers. Furthermore, the publishing sector has played an important role in the dissemination of new forms of writing and of cultural expressions, such as those works authored in the Amazigh language of the Berbers in Morocco. The recent development of Arab publishing, beyond the book capitals of Cairo and Beirut, reveals the strengthening of national fields of culture in each Arab country. Thus, there is both a regionalization of the pan-Arab media landscape, with the development of new technologies, and a reinforcing (as well as a diversification) of national media spheres. These two ongoing processes assert Arab publishing’s considerable role in offering a certain margin of expression for contemporary creativity to escape, to a certain degree, the dual constraints of the economic and political powers.
Although in recent years we have seen an increase in the number of translated works, we should bear in mind that the domains of social sciences, those fields of knowledge which are directly connected to the contemporary challenges of the Arab region, are the least represented in the world of publishing. This reflects the marginality of this field of research in many Arab countries where social sciences inquiries are limited and looked upon with great suspicion. Meanwhile, the development of the fiction genre reflects the emergence of new processes of subjectification in the construction of the self through writing. It also indicates as well the increasing role of literature in expressing social and political issues that are concealed in some countries.