The culture of reading is deteriorating in Lebanon and the Arab world, according to several publishers who participated in this year’s Beirut International Arab Book Fair. And as it comes to a close Thursday, a number of major Lebanese publishing houses say business at the fair’s 55th edition has been slower than last year.Jana Tamer, the director of An-Nahar Publishing House, attributes this year’s sales drop to several factors, including a waning “culture of reading” in Lebanon.
“We never see people reading in cafes, buses, or even at the beach,” Tamer told The Daily Star.
“Maybe education at school does not focus [enough] on reading,” she says, adding that the family also has a role to play in fostering a desire to read in children. “If a child does not see books at home or his parents reading, then he will not read.”
Tamer says that An-Nahar’s most in demand titles have been political texts and novels, citing Kamal Dib’s “The Modern History of Syria” as one of the favorite books of the fair.
She explains that the publishing house heavily discounted books at the exhibition in a bid to attract customers. “Besides the absence of a reading culture [in Lebanon],” she says, “books are expensive.”
Ayman Sinno, managing editor of Riad al-Rayyes Publishing House, said that the “deterioration” of reading in the Arab World has been happening for some time.
“Millions of books are published in Western countries,” he says, in comparison to what he says are “thousands” in all Arab countries combined.
Publishing houses from Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Iraq, Palestine and Egypt took part in this edition of the Beirut International Arab Book Fair, which was organized by the Arab Cultural Club. Some 180 Lebanese publishers, and several dozen from the rest of the Arab world participated.
Manning the Al-Rayyes stand at the fair, Nasser Flaity reports slow sales, and says clients’ tastes didn’t seem to follow a pattern. Fawwaz Traboulsi’s “A Modern History of Lebanon” topped sales in the history genre, according to Flaity, and the poetry of the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish has also been popular. Darwish’s last work, “I Don’t Want this Poem to be Over,” has been in especially high demand.
Al-Adab Publishing House places the blame for low sales chiefly on the economic situation. “[Sales are] not bad, but they are not like last year. This year, people are asking more about prices,” says Rana Idriss, the director of the house.
“You have those who came back from the Gulf” because of the global financial crisis, she says. “And the situation in Africa [for Lebanese expatriates] is not [as favorable] as before.”
She cites a high demand for novels with political themes, along with Al-Adab’s magazine, which has discussed the popular uprisings that have been rocking the region for almost a year.
Unlike other Lebanese publishers, Idriss is optimistic about the future of reading in Lebanon.
“Four or five years ago, we used to see [mostly] old people reading ... but in the past two years, we have been seeing a new generation reading Arabic,” she says. “It is as if Arabic is in again. Maybe young people who went to study abroad realized the importance of reading.”
Idriss said that the usual Arab patrons, from countries such as Iraq and Syria, did not turn up in the same numbers as past years.
But a fair shopper, Syrian priest Hananaya Hakimeh, was not affected by the upheaval in his country and decided to attend the exhibition. He notes that people don’t seem to be buying as much as in past years: “Look, where are people? I think the economic situation has to do much with this.”
Despite its status as a mainly English bookseller at an Arabic-language book fair, Malik’s books reports that business has been good. “Business was like last year’s or even better and bestseller novels topped sales,” says Fadi Matar, who is in charge of the store’s stand.
One browser was concerned not about prices or sales, but with organizational flaws at the exhibition. “The location of stands does not follow alphabetical order,” complains Tarek Jamil.