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Syrian publishers at Cairo Book Fair: 'We came because we are still alive'

Ahram Online visits Syrian book sellers at the Cairo International Book Fair amid the devastation of their domestic industry

Mohammed Saad , Monday 3 Feb 2014
Cairo International Book Fair
Visitors of Cairo International Book Fair painting the Free Syrian Army flag at the booth of the Cultural Institue of children (Photo courtesy of Cairo International Book Fair Facebook page)
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Syrian publishers are having a very hard time with their industry torn apart by the ongoing civil war of three years, leaving most of the country’s infrastructure destroyed, roads and highways cut, and commerce and business paralysed.

Under harsh and brutal circumstances that have left tens of thousands killed or injured and several millions displaced, the publishing industry has been struggling to print and sell books amid a huge increase in the cost of paper and transportation prices.

Despite these circumstances, Syrian participation remains strong in the Cairo International Book Fair (22 January - 6 February), as visitors to Hall 19 — devoted to the Arab publishers — could observe. Indeed, Syrian publishers occupied the larger part of it.

Many Syrian and Arab publishers preferred not to speak to the media at the fair, whether because they’re busy selling books or because they fear questions about politics.

One Syrian publisher told Ahram Online: “I don’t want to speak. We have no print industry, and we don’t sell books at home anymore. We’re just being killed. We came here because we are still alive.”

Many Syrian publishers have problems in reaching print houses because the roads are cut amid ongoing fighting between the Syrian military and the Free Syrian Army (opposition armed forces), or because their print houses are located in areas dominated by hostile groups or still dominated by the Syrian regime.

Among them is publisher Radwan Mohammed.

Mohammed is a Syrian publisher and owner of Radwan Publishing House that includes a large printing facility. He can no longer reach this facility, and so most of his sales are now outside Syria. Sales inside Syria represent about 10 to 15 percent of his total annual turnover, Mohammed told Ahram Online. Lebanon, Egypt and other countries are now the centre of his business.

“I have a big publishing house, with my own print house. I can’t reach it since two years and I don’t know if it is still there or not. It’s located on the airport road. Now I print my books outside Syria and sell them outside Syria too.”

Media coverage in Syria of new books is all but gone, according to Mohammed. Now he struggles with shipping prices and getting visas to sell his books in other countries, including Egypt.

Ahmed Walid, owner of Hewar Publishing House, didn’t really want to comment on what’s happening in Syria, or the Cairo International Book Fair’s organisation. He seemed upset that sales at the fair were not stronger, amid what he said was a 500 percent increase in the cost of printing for Syrian publishers.

Many Syrian publishers have fled Syria completely, moving their work and assets outside — some to Cairo, others to Beirut and Amman.

Nabih El-Jandaly, representative of Irshad Publishing House, originally working in Syria, said they moved completely to Cairo after they found it impossible to continue working in Syria. Yet some publishers struggle on, perhaps lacking the resources to relocate.

“The situation is really bad on all levels there. Most publishing houses are outside Syria now. Some people are still working inside, but they’re very few and working on printing school books only. Novels and intellectual books have no market there anymore,” El-Jandaly explained.

According to El-Jandaly, the cost of the book before the revolution was 50 Syrian pounds (SYP), which increased now to around 150SYP. Meanwhile, the average Syrian citizen, because of deterioration in the national currency, can ill-afford the luxury of new literature.

Some publishers are weathering the storm, nonetheless. Haytham El-Ghazaly, owner of Nainawa Publishing House, said he published about 50 new titles lately, and is still working inside Syria.

“Selling and printing books isn’t the same as before the revolution, of course. But we’re still going, and able to work. There are libraries and bookstores working in some governorates. It’s less, but it’s there.” El-Ghazaly told Ahram Online.

Ahram Online tried to contact Assem Shalaby, head of the Arab and Egyptian Publishers Union, for information and comment on the situation of Syrian publishers and statistics on the Syrian publishing market, but he could not be reached.

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