War, politics take toll on Syria’s publishing

Friday 12/02/2016
A Syrian vendor sells books and praying beads at a market in old Damascus.

Damascus - The publishing and print­ing business in Syria, once a thriving industry, has been badly hit by the country’s long-running war. As the Syrian crisis degener­ated into a full-fledged conflict, hundreds of publishing and print­ing houses have been shut down, printing facilities were destroyed and warehouses were burned, in­curring losses of millions of dollars.

Some big houses, especially those that had printing centres in Aleppo and in rural Damascus, scenes of fierce fighting since 2011, relocated outside Syria.

Haytham al-Hafez, head of the Syrian Publishers Association and owner of Dar al-Hafez publishing house, said that, in addition to the war, the book industry in Syria suf­fered from a drop in regional mar­kets, either because countries have gone through uprisings and turmoil — such as Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Tunisia — or for political reasons, as is the case with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries that have been boycotting the Syrian regime and supporting rebels fighting to topple it.

“The calamities gripping Syria for the past five years had an im­pact on the book industry with production in 2013 and 2014 not ex­ceeding 5% of what it was prior to 2011,” Hafez said, stressing, howev­er, that the loss of regional markets was much more detrimental since “only 25% of printers’ production was consumed locally”.

“Many Arab countries that did not experience any ‘Arab spring’ revolutions have closed their doors in the face of Syrian books for political considerations, nota­bly their stance regarding the Syr­ian regime,” Hafez said.

Many publishers have relocated outside Syria and resorted to pub­lishing under the brand names of other houses to ensure continuity and keep active in GCC markets, notably Saudi Arabia, which is the biggest in the region, he pointed out.

“We were forced to produce un­der others’ names due to Syria’s boycott. Moreover, we have lost our printing facilities and ware­houses in rural Damascus,” he said, noting that he has suffered losses totalling $4 million when a warehouse in Kafr Batna in eastern rural Damascus was destroyed.

The devaluation of the Syr­ian pound, economic deterioration and the drastic drop in the pur­chase power of the middle class, which was the biggest consumer of print products, was another set­back for the printing and publish­ing industry.

People are more concerned about securing their daily liveli­hood than reading books, accord­ing to a bookshop owner who asked not to be identified. “Our average daily sales do not exceed 10,000 pounds, equivalent to $25, and our profit (margin) is a mere $10,” he said.

The war has also adversely af­fected the output and creativity of authors and writers, many of whom have left Syria and have not been able to produce worthwhile works.

“Prior to 2011, we used to pub­lish about 100 new titles annually. In the last few years, production dropped to a mere ten new titles,” said owner of Dar al-Fikr Hassan Salem.

The sharp rise in book prices has kept many readers away from bookshops. “Before 2011, the aver­age price of books was 250 pounds, the equivalent of $5, an affordable cost for Syrian readers. Today, $5 equals 2,000 pounds, which is equivalent of 5% of an average Syr­ian’s salary,” Salem pointed out.

Researchers and university stu­dents who can no longer afford to buy books were the most affected, he said, adding that he has opened a library where students could borrow books “which otherwise would be (rotting) in warehouses”.

Demand for translation services also fell as a result of the crisis, not­ed Sami Ahmad, publisher of Dar al-Takween translation house.

“We used to translate between 60 and 70 new titles every year and print 1,000 copies of each title but in the last three years we only pub­lished 20 books, including 18 trans­lated works,” he said.

Tawfik Ahmad, an official at the Syrian General Book Authority, af­filiated with the Ministry of Cul­ture, stated that although book production had declined in the years following the start of the cri­sis, the number of titles issued by the authority still reached 200.

“In order to make up for the rise in the cost of printing, the author­ity was granted a 30% increase of its budget, especially that we offer the books at a 50% discount,” Ah­mad said.

While a small number of those active in the business in Damascus before the war are still operating, they have to put up with numerous challenges, such as the expense of shipping and being refused the visas needed to attend book fairs. Syrian book fairs have been boy­cotted while publishers are often excluded from the invitation lists to regional exhibitions.