September 16, 2013

The booksellers of the Arab world


A book stall in the Ezbekiya market in Cairo.

The single-minded devotion of booksellers and bookbuyers can at times be astounding—take, for example, Colin Franklin, who in his recent memoir about antiquarian bookselling, Obsessions and Confessions of a Book Life, recounts the time when he and a fellow bookseller pored over a copy of Goya’s “Caprichos” during a brown-out in London caused by a miner’s strike, a scene that his own wife called “an image of decadence.”

In a recent post for Oxford University Press’s blog, Trevor Naylor, Sales, Marketing, and Distribution Director for the American University in Cairo Press, sheds light on a perhaps more admirable side of the dogged commitment to books and their circulation: the generations of booksellers he’s known in cities across the Middle East, who’ve persisted in their trade despite wars, repression, tough economic times, and sometimes, accidentally ending up at the epicenter of a revolution—as happened last year with the AUC bookstore located on Tahrir Square.

In Delhi, for instance, there’s Ansari Road, called “a heaven for book lovers,” which was at one time one of the largest book trade markets in Asia and is still crammed full of sellers, publishers, and other literary businesses. Naylor attributes its liveliness in part to the effects of Partition:

Hindu family bookshops… settled there after the terrible events of Partition, when the most exciting book capital in the world, Lahore, was ripped apart. To go from one to the other was a joy, one day selling to the Indians and the next to the Pakistani families whose forebears used to have stores beside those now in Delhi.

Other cities with vibrant publishing scenes, like Beirut, one of the centers of Arabic-language publishing, have faced impossible situations– civil war, the division of the city, bombings and sieges–  but kept the books moving; Naylor calls out bookseller Antranik Helvadjian, owner of the Librairie Internationale, “who somehow came to London and Frankfurt, with cash in hand, to pay his bills and ship new titles.” (And is the wielder of a very fine pipe, as this photo of him can attest.)

The Arab world has faced difficulties with book distribution: a 2005 study on the book market in Egypt found that, of a pool of 150 titles, “10% were available in practically all the conventional distribution channels, another 10% could not be obtained anywhere, and the remaining 80% were only available within a radius of 5 kilometres of the publisher’s office or the author’s house.”

But the very concentration of it may have created particularly intense, unique places: neighborhoods whose identities are vividly defined by the book business, the way, for instance, New York’s Book Row on Fourth Avenue between Astor Place and Union Square used to be.

One reason for the persistence of bookselling operations may be found in the fact that it’s long been a family business. And Naylor knows the Basses and the McNallys of Cairo bookselling well:

Today they sit mostly waiting, surviving and finding ways to keep the sales ticking over and to pay their faithful staff. They watch the turmoil that surrounds them, hoping it will settle soon, for they know that the draw of Egypt is indeed eternal and things will come back. They know that because they, or their father, or indeed their father’s father (ask Fahdy Greiss at the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop) saw it all before.

Whether this reflects the worst of the family business ethos (the idea that you just cannot ever give up, because you’ll be disappointing centuries of grim forbearers) or the best (that the life of enterprises is longer than a human life, and that each generation contributes its part to a greater project), it’s hard to tell. But for those who depend on the bookstores of Beirut, Delhi, Kuwait, Tehran, and Cairo, the phlegmatic, taciturn, but deeply hopeful attitudes of these generations of booksellers could not be more important.


Sal Robinson is an editor at Melville House. She's also the co-founder of the Bridge Series, a reading series focused on translation.