Al-Saqi: Not your average London bookstore
London - Al-Saqi bookshop is housed in a conspicuous building in London’s Bayswater district. With colonnades and arches topped by 11 staring busts, its architecture recalls ruins that are found across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.
Above the door hangs a yellow sign with a blue emblem, depicting a hunched figure passing water to thirsty children: al-saqi – “the water-seller” — a historic symbol of Arab desert societies.
It is an appropriate home for a company that has been a hub for cultural exchange since its inception more than three decades ago. Over the years the Saqi team faced censorship, war, death threats and Israeli missiles — as well as the inevitable hardships of independent bookselling.
It is an impressive tale of survival and success, but a humble one; owner Salwa Gaspard notes most proudly that for those who visit, the small shop “still feels like home”.
Al-Saqi was founded in 1979 by the late author and artist Mai Ghoussoub and her childhood friend, publisher Andre Gaspard, Salwa Gaspard’s husband. In their youth both were members of Marxist organisations but upon the outbreak of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 their efforts shifted towards humanitarianism and helping to establish medical dispensaries in quarters of Beirut that were lacking in supplies.
The charity work continued until Ghoussoub was injured in 1977 while driving a wounded Palestinian to hospital; a brave act in a sectarian conflict as she was born a Maronite Christian.
After moving to London for treatment on her wounded eye, Gaspard said: “Mai noticed that there were many Arabs in the city, from Lebanon, the Emirates, Egypt — from all over the Arab world, and nowhere to buy books in Arabic. When our shop opened we were the first one.”
The store opened in West London with elbow grease and funding provided by acquaintances. “Mai would always tell the story of how she and Andre would decide who to send the catalogues to,” Gaspard said. “She ended up opening a phone book and picking out names that sounded Arabic or slightly exotic.”
The store expanded to include books in English on Middle Eastern culture and politics and began publishing under its own literary imprint (run today by Salwa and Andre’s daughter, Lynn Gaspard). It became known for vibrant readings and parties, lauded in publications from the Financial Times to the Guardian and frequented by Notting Hill celebrities. It became a landmark for Arabs in London as well as intellectuals within the diaspora, praised by such towering figures as Edward Said.
The Saqi ethos leans to the left, perhaps instinctively, and its name grew in stature thanks to a reputation for selling contentious literature. People continue to “look for books that have been banned. I have to ask them which government has censored the books they’re after; we don’t have a banned books section,” Gaspard said in a tone that gives the impression of a running joke.
If Saqi owes any of its fame to its rebellious nature, it is accidental. “Most of the time, you can’t know which books will be prohibited,” said Gaspard, citing as an example a seemingly innocuous biography of King Faisal bin Abdulaziz that was banned by the Saudi Arabian government when it was published in 2013.
Notable Saqi titles on the store’s bookshelves — Arabic books line one wall of the shop, English books another — include Brian Whitaker’s Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, biblical scholar Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and Abdel Bari Atwan’s Islamic State.
Saqi clearly does not shy from sex, religion or politics, the natural focus of any censorship regime. This has occasionally demanded a price. “We had our front windows smashed,” Gaspard said. “Since then, we’re careful of what we put in the window display.”
Upon receiving threatening messages after the fatwa against Salman Rushdie was issued, “The police asked us if we couldn’t just sell The Satanic Verses under the table, and we did,” she said.
During the 2006 war in Lebanon, the warehouse of Dar al-Saqi (Saqi’s sister publishing house in Beirut, founded in 1987 and run by Andre Gaspard) was bombed by an Israeli warplane.
From its birth, the Saqi enterprise has been inextricably tied to worlds of conflict. Recent publications include Lebanon, Lebanon, writings and drawings in support of Lebanese children traumatised by war, and Syria Speaks, a collection of artistic responses by Syrians to the violence in their homeland which won an English PEN award.
Saqi’s dedication to a culture of translation has remained strong. As Gaspard says, “The more the Middle East is in the news, the more people will tend to gravitate towards certain topics but we try to offer as wide a variety of perspectives as possible. It’s not all politics and religion. We sell books on food, drink, art, travel.”
What Saqi truly succeeds at is interpreting people through an internationalist perspective, which has led its Middle Eastern focus to widen over time. Saqi’s fiction imprint, Telegram, features authors translated from several languages. The Saqi family understands the value of an intimate avenue to cultural exploration; poetry, of course, will always have its special place on an Arab bookshelf.