Arab book readers shift to spirituality
Beirut - The effect of the wars in the region was felt at the Beirut International Arab Book Fair 2015. Having had enough of politics, excessive violence, the many economic and humanitarian hardships, Arab readers dropped interest in political books, including many trying to explain the Islamic State (ISIS) phenomenon. Spirituality seems to be the new attraction.
Syrian publishers, who defied the extremely difficult conditions in their country and took part in the fair, arrived with new or reprinted books that covered topics ranging from Islamic studies to Arabic versions of works by the Indian mystic guru Osho. Such spiritual books, including translations, proved to be quiet popular.
“People seem fed up with political books in light of the region’s successive crises,” Ruba Abdullah, representative of the Syrian Dar al-Farqad publishing house, said during the book fair, which marked its 59th anniversary in 2015.
Reprints of classic multi-volume Islamic books, whether newly produced or unsold from recent years, filled other stands rented out by Syrian publishers, who accounted for 20 out of 70 participating Arab publishers. There were another 170 from Lebanon.
It was very difficult for them to have their stands ready on time when the 14-day fair opened November 27th. “Printing is always behind schedule inside Syria but even the books that were ready arrived in Beirut a bit late due to the bad conditions in our homeland,” said Jamal al-Hajj, who represented Dar al-Furat.
In 2012, a debate on how to foster reading habits among Arab youth was prompted after the Arab Thought Foundation released its fourth annual cultural development report, saying that an average Arab child reads “six minutes” a year in comparison to 12,000 minutes for a Western child. It also reported that an Arab individual on average reads a quarter of a page a year compared to 11 books read by an American and seven books by a Briton.
Beirut’s fair, one of a series of similar events at different times of the year in the Arab region, has suffered decreasing sales in recent years. “All fairs we take part in are having bad times but the Lebanese one is probably the worst due to economic conditions here,” Hajj said, echoing other publishers of various nationalities.
Lebanon’s economic ills are mainly due to domestic political tensions, which stalemated almost all conditional institutions, while the country is suffering from fallout of the war ongoing in neighbouring Syria since 2011. Lebanon hosts more than 1.2 million Syrian refugees.
“Bad economic and political conditions here and in the region have shrunk the number of visitors and decreased sales,” said a member of the organising committee, made up of the Arab Cultural Centre and the Association of Lebanese Publishers. Yet, the event hosted 265 book-signing ceremonies, he said, declining to be named.
At the Iraqi stands in the fair, similar complaints could be heard. Mohammad Hadi, who represented Iraqi-owned Al Kamel Publishers operating in Koln, Germany, boasted a series of new books dealing with contemporary political and social issues.
“We have poor sales, though,” he said. Asked why Iraqi-based publishers do not show up in book fairs abroad, he said “a law dating back to president Saddam Hussein’s regime bans the export of books from Iraq”.
Lebanese publishers talked about good sales of works of fiction. “Generally, people do not have money to spend on books but when they do, they buy fiction,” Mehyar al-Kurdi, a representative of the Arab Cultural Centre, said at the co-organisers’ stand. “People seem fed up with politics.”
Indeed, the stand was full of novels, mainly Arabic translations of British and Russian classics.
Not that many books could be found dealing with the Islamic State (ISIS). Books praising Arab regimes have been on the slide since the 2011 “Arab spring”. Al Farqad, the Syrian publisher, displayed a reprint of a translation of a book about Syrian President Bashar Assad.
On the back, the publisher wrote that the book was not permitted to be sold inside Syria in 2006 because it was considered too propagandist. However, the publisher “decided to print it now due to its importance”. The New Lion of Damascus was written by David W. Lesch.
A frequent window shopper of the fair identified himself as Ahmad. “It is always the same story. The fair starts towards the end of the month when people’s salaries have long been over,” he said. “And not all people get paid by the time the fair is about to be over, and if they do, the money usually goes to paying bills.”