Syrian Publishers and Bookstores Become Casualties of War – Al-Fanar Media

Traditional books stores are closing in Damascus, with sales slowed by changing reading habits and an economy strangled by war. Al-Nouri, above, is one of the few that remain open. (Photo: Al-Nouri bookstore’s Facebook page)
In a blow to the country’s cultural sector, several Syrian publishers and bookstores have closed in recent years. Publishing houses have suffered heavy losses in an economy crippled by civil war. The conflict has taken a toll on reading habits, too.
As shops selling general-interest books have closed, however, the number of stores specialized in selling religious books has surged. Religious books have gained “remarkable popularity” in recent years, publishers and book distributors said.
One of the publishers Damascus has lost since the start of the war is Maaber Publishing and Translation House, which closed in 2015 after being in business for almost 10 years.
“The high cost of basic materials, like paper and inks, and the rise in wages were among the forefront reasons that led to the shut-down decision,” Mona Hilal, one of the house’s founders, told Al-Fanar Media.
Little by little, the crisis turned into a phenomenon, as more publishing houses closed. Several historic bookstores also shut down as sales slumped. Among them were Nobel Bookstore, Al-Dhahabi Bookstore, A’lam Al-Ma’rifa, and Maysaloon.
“Syrian publishing houses do not depend today on local bookstores to sell their books. Instead they rely mainly on their participation in exhibitions abroad.”
Said al-Barghouti   Owner of Syria’s Canaan House for Studies and Publishing
Hilal and her late husband, Akram Antaki, founded Maaber Publishing and Translation 14 years ago and focused on publishing books on philosophy and translations.
They chose to close the business, she said, to “avoid being driven into publishing best-sellers.”
“Today, a Syrian translator prefers working with foreign parties, rather than dealing with Syrian publishing houses for better financial revenues,” she said.
It has also become difficult for Syrian publishers to export books, she added.
Maaber had tried several tactics to remain in business amid the country’s deteriorating economic situation. “We had to reduce the number of copies of all books we printed, and invented new, alternative sales tactics, like renting books to students at Syrian universities,” Hilal said.
However, these methods did not work and the house finally closed in 2015 after heavy financial losses.
Hilal hopes that the country’s Ministry of Culture will support publishing houses that are still struggling to survive “in order to ensure their continuity, in the face of the recession that hits everyone and afflicts Syria’s cultural sector.”
Said al-Barghouti, owner of Syria’s Canaan House for Studies and Publishing, told Al-Fanar Media that “Syrian publishing houses do not depend today on local bookstores to sell their books, instead they rely mainly on their participation in exhibitions abroad.”
At the same time, he points out that there are “great difficulties facing marketing books in Lebanon, unlike before.” Even before Lebanon’s own financial and political problems reached a crisis stage, the country had become less hospitable toward its Syrian neighbors.
(See two related articles, “Lebanese Education Sector Faces ‘Big and Grave’ Losses, Experts Say” and “Syrian Students’ Dreams of Studying Abroad Hit New Roadblocks.”)
Since its founding in 1989, the Damascus-based Canaan Publishing House has been struggling to face “the depression afflicting the publishing industry,” al-Barghouti said. It, too, has reduced the number of copies of each title it publishes, from 4,000 to 500.
“All Syria’s industry, power stations, journalism, drama, and poultry farms have stopped. So why would we expect bookstores to be excluded from this?”
Yaroub Al-Issa   A Damascus-based novelist
He added: “The book market has shrunk a lot, primarily due to economic factors. Yes, some bookshops still exist here and there, but the biggest source for books in Syria today is book piracy websites, followed by street vendors selling illegally printed and poor copies of the most popular books in the region.”
These itinerant booksellers “are everywhere, under the main bridges in Damascus and some other areas, selling copies of the latest publications for less than a quarter of their price,” he said. The quality of the pirated books is poor, he said, “but they meet the needs of what is left of the country’s readers.”
“All Syria’s industry, power stations, journalism, drama, and poultry farms have stopped,” noted Yaroub Al-Issa, a Damascus-based novelist. “So why would we expect bookstores to be excluded from this?”
He added: “An entire country is dying. … What really needs to be explained is that some bookstores have survived so far.”
Al-Issa said only three bookstores remain in the Syrian capital that sell modern books: Al-Maktaba al Umumiya, Al-Nouri, and Al-Sham. “Dozens of us can write books, draw twenty paintings, and write a hundred poems, but these will remain scattered individual efforts regardless of their cultural and artistic level.”
Khalil Sweileh, another Syrian novelist based in Damascus, thinks the closure of bookstores known for selling liberal and Marxist books shows how far cultural activities have sunk after ten years of war.
Reading practices have also collapsed, he said. “This is not only because of poor income, but also the dominance of new war-produced behaviors, putting books at the bottom of people’s interests.”
Sweileh, whose novel “Remorse Test” won the 2018 Sheikh Zayed Book Award, links the rapid rise of bookstores selling Islamic books to “the Islamization of Damascene society … along with an aversion to secularism.”
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Sweileh concludes that the core of the disaster lies in the collapse of the Syrian middle class. “It was this class that viewed a home library essential to them, before a microwave became more important than a book,” he said. Reading is no longer at the centre of people’s interests, he said, “except for cookbooks, horoscopes, and entertainment novels.”
To read more about the challenges facing Arab publishers and book sellers, see the following selected articles from Al-Fanar Media’s archives:
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