In Mohammad al-Maghout’s famous play, “Dayet Tishreen” a library owner transforms his library into a coffee-shop at a remote village somewhere in the Arab world. One young girl who frequents the library is appalled by the horrific transformation, angrily asking him: “From a library to a café?” He innocently looks back at her and says: “What’s wrong with that? A book is for 1 pound, and an argeeleh (Turkish pipe) is also for 1 pound!” She asks him to explain so he adds, “An argeeleh doesn’t take you to prison dear Zena, but a book certainly does—just look at books that have taken those who read them to the hangman’s noose!” That was Damascus, 1974.
Those words kept ringing in my ears over the past few days as I have noticed an equally horrific observation while strolling the streets of Damascus. The old, cranky library next to the Ministry of Industry, opposite the Cham Palace Hotel, has been closed down—out of business. This library, a favorite for the Syrian intelligentsia for decades, was named after the 1920 battle between Syria and the French, “Maysaloun.” Since the 1960s it served one generation after another of young Syrians, especially revolutionary and secular young people. A few meters down the road, another famous library, “Family,” in Sahet al-Najmeh, has been closed down and transformed into a pharmacy. Even worse, the Sheraton Hotel Library, a pioneer in selling English books, has also been closed, transformed into a shop that sells traditional Arabic dress (abaya). Cafes and restaurants now outnumber libraries in this city by over 100 times and even in five-star hotels that are mushrooming all over Syria, no bookstores can be found.
All of this was naturally expected for—dare I say it—a dying industry…an industry in sharp decline.
Twenty-years ago, major publishing houses in Syria used to publish no less than 3,000 copies for a first edition of any book by any acclaimed author. Over the past 10-years, that number was slashed down to 1,000 books and now stands at approximately 500 books/first edition except in the case of heavyweights like Nizar Qabbani. When I published my first book in Syria, back in 1998, it was priced at 180 SP (back then $3.6 USD)—a mediocre amount no doubt, needed nevertheless in order to encourage readers to buy it. When my second book was published in the US, where finishing, layout, and distribution are far more superior, it sold at $35 USD. The $35 book is now out-of-print, while the 180 SP book is badly in stock!
Why is it that our books are in decline—both in quantity and quantity—and so is our readership and libraries? Why is it that libraries in Damascus lack the color and brilliance of display? In the West, bookstores literarily look like candy shops—yelling out at customers to walk in, read, and buy books. In Syria they are still dusty, old, with books clustered on wooden shelves in no particular sequence or order, with aging men behind thick rimmed glasses, sluggishly serving customers, visibly angry at the deteriorating taste of readers. In the past they used to read al-Mutanabi and Ahmad Shawki. Nowadays, they are reading horoscope books, like Maggie Farah–a bestseller not only in Syria but throughout the Middle East.
No wonder libraries are shutting down, one after another, in a city that ironically took pride at breathing life into some of the finest bookstores of the entire East, not-too-long ago.