Monday, December 19, 2011

Damascus Bookshops Victims of Syrian Uprising

by Stephen J. Gertz

Sidewalk booksellers in Damascus' Souq al-Salihiya. Photo credit: al-Akhbar.

The Maysaloun, Zahra, Yaqza, al-A'ila, Fikr wa Fan, and al-Nahsa al-Arabiyya book shops in Damascus, Syria, the city's intellectual hubs and lifeblood, have closed, as have recently many others. They have been converted into fast food shops, pharmacies, shoe stores, internet cafes, and commercial bank branches. The Arab Spring, Syrian uprising, and international sanctions have taken their toll.

One of the oldest booksellers in Damascus, Abu Ahmad, explains that “visitors and customers have become rare these days, and the painful irony is that some of them want to sell their books to us rather than buy our books.”

"The successive closure of the most famous bookstores in Damascus sums up the situation of the market for literature in Syria," Anas Zarzar of Beirut-based al-Akhbar-English, writes. "A quick survey of the 27th annual Damascus Book Exhibition that opened in September might be enough to answer questions surrounding the state of reading in Syria, with the printing and publishing environment in the shadow of a new cultural reality, influenced, like all things, by the events of the Syrian uprising."

Imad Houria, of Alem al-Maarifa book shop in downtown Damascus, an ongoing participant in the book fair, said “perhaps this is the worst year of any that we’ve participated in the exhibition. We were flooded this year with the titles of contemporary political books that treat the Syrian crisis in some of their chapters, but we lost the bet and the books remained piled up in warehouses.”

Another factor is the state of Arab publishing. Houria continued, “the number of books the big Arab publishers were supplying us went down because their owners were afraid of the events of the Syrian uprising and the downturn in the book market.”

In Houria’s book shop business was no better. Bookseller Mohammad Nouri also confirms that Damascus publishers have been printing fewer copies since the uprising began.

Sidewalk booksellers, an important part of the Damascus book scene, have also been affected by recent events. Every year, during the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, it was customary for booksellers to move their stock onto the sidewalks in Souq al-Salihiya,  transforming the open-air market into a Mecca for bookworms.

Azad al-Molla Ahmad, a bookseller from Northern Syria who travels to Damascus to sell books on the sidewalk, preferred, however, to keep his books at home this year. 

Booksellers in Syria have always had difficulties. "There are huge problems to get free information and education," Bettina Laser of the Institut für Auslandsbeziehungen's CrossCuture Praktika, says. "Libraries are under governmental control and even normal bookstores offer the same range of books for years. They do not change their limited offer and follow the governmental regulations. The government is not interested in supporting reading and gaining knowledge about politics and social behavior."

The streets of Damascus have become a bit too unpredictably exciting these days, if not downright dangerous, and the odds against booksellers are roughly the same as those for Bashar al-Assad opening a kibbutz in the city's downtown - or any other - district.

It is revealing, however, that for purveyors of lingerie in Damascus' souk-al-Hamidiyah business is good, if not brisk.

HALASA, Malu and Rana Salam. The Secret Life of Syrian Lingerie.
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2008.

It is unlikely, however, that Syrians are reading about it in the above book.


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