Point-blank: Farewell to an Arab cultural centre

Mohamed Salmawy
Tuesday 24 Jan 2023

The end of 2022 brought some sad news: an important centre for the dissemination of Arab culture abroad had to close down. The Saqi bookshop was one of the best known bookshops in Europe specialising in Middle Eastern political affairs, literature, history and culture.


Founded in 1978 by Andre and Salwa Gaspard and the late Mai Ghassoub, three friends who had moved to London from war-torn Lebanon, it was located in the vibrant cosmopolitan Bayswater quarter of west London.

As a result of their efforts and dedication, Saqi became the first and foremost repository in Europe of Arabic and foreign language works related to the Arab world. On its brimming shelves one could often find Arabic books that could not be found even in Arab countries because of the censors.

It was at Saqi where I obtained my first copy of Naguib Mahfouz’s Children of Gebelawi which was banned in Egypt at the time. During one of my visits to London, I heard that the famous Syrian poet Adonis was in town. It was at Saqi that I learned which hotel he was at.

A large part of the bookshop’s work depended on orders for books on the Arab world from other European countries. But Saqi is also a publisher, and Salwa Gaspard has said that it will continue that side of its work. She explained that the bookstore had been forced to close due the detrimental impact of Brexit on its business, the rising prices of Arabic language books, the hikes in shipping costs, and additional customs fees. The new generation doesn’t have as many avid readers as there were when she and her partners opened the bookshop over four decades ago.

Therefore, along with the foregoing year, we have to bid a sad farewell to the Saqi bookstore, that outstanding centre of Arab cultural dissemination abroad, and a favourite gathering place for Arab intellectuals in the British capital.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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