Arageel don’t take you to prison!

Sami Moubayed

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.

4 Responses

  1. I think that transformation of libraries into cafes is the same as transformation of people from human beings into less categorical species don’t you agree ?

  2. I concur with you in your observation, it is really sad to see this situation in Syria, I spent many years in Europe and the US, where you find libraries located in the most expensive and famous locations in the city which explain how attractive and profitable libraries are in these countries, I was shocked during my last trip to Damascus last year by the fact that I couldn’t find any reliable library to buy valuable books which I needed for my research, on the contrary, all I found was some small shops run by people who want to play the role of an intellectual by showing their knowledge of some low class books. Unfortunately, I had to take a trip to a neighboring country to find what I was looking for. In my opinion the education system is the main reason behind this phenomenon in Syria , which does not leave any space for research and innovation, so students has one book, that can be found in the University bookstore, and if they memorize it they pass

  3. Sami, the decline you mention is a decline all over the Arab World. in 2007 more books were translated into Spanish in Spain than the number of books published in the Arab World. The shift s two fold; Muslims have adopted a radcal form of Islam that devalues books, and secular Arabs have all shifted to the on-line world.

    I’m no expert but the first trend is worrysome while the second is expected. Here in the US a similar trend has been noticed. That’s why E-readers will be the next craze and if Arabs are hooked by that new trend it won’t be so bad. At least it wont be as bad as your valid and astute observation implies it is. Cheer up.

  4. I agree with Mazen about the current level of the libraries in Syria. Today, religious books are sold more than anything else, and, in my view, this is the main disaster.
    Then comes the consumer’s most precious interest, women and sex, those are books that give you a mythic image of sex through religious views (again), or, on the contrary, poems and liberal metaphors which are way too bizarre for today’s conservative raised Syrians.
    Then comes those craps like Chef Ramzy, Maggie Farah, how to be successful, NLP and so on… unfortunately, those who read these think of themselves as intellectuals (mistakenly). Once I wrote, cuisine and fashion is not freedom and progress. It’s killing me every time I see people posing themselves as intellectuals by reading these nonsense, listening to some Lena Shamamian songs, repeating an old story from the glorious days of their grammas, or a big headline they just read in a posh magazine or a nice colorful newspaper…
    Bottom of line, I may sound very radical, but, if this is how bad libraries are going to be, then I agree to turn them to cafes, pharmacies, fast food restaurants, or whatever people fancy today…

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