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Even in Peace, Lebanon’s Literary World Remains at War

By Yasmina Jraissati

Yasmina Jraissati

BEIRUT: This year, with Beirut serving as the World Book Capital for 2009, the city’s literary world remains linguistically and cultural divided: the city will be hosting two distinct book fairs, the Lebanese Francophone Book Fair (Salon francophone du livre de Beyrouth) which took place in October and November, and the International Beirut Book Fair (Maarad al kitab al duwali), more commonly called the “Arab” book fair, which will be held in December. Each caters to a different audience of readers and book lovers and they remain, for the most part, segregated from one another, with those exhibiting at one fair tending not to visit the other, and vice versa.

“We are excluded from the Francophone fair,” confirmed the owner and manager of one of Beirut’s largest Arabic houses. School children, too, are often segregated from exploring the other culture’s fair. Smail Chahine, bookseller and founder of the cultural center of Hermel, a town north north of the Bekaa plain, explained “The majority of the schools that take their students to the Francophone fair are private schools where French is the teaching language,” while “the majority of the schools that take their students to the Arab fair are public schools or private Islamic schools.”

This cultural division is reflective of the deeply rooted social divide in Lebanon, but also aggravates the already difficult situation faced by publishers and booksellers in the region.

Publishers vs. Booksellers

In the Arab world, publishers often complain that they do not sell enough books. Distribution is a problem and with bookstores few and far between, book fairs fill the gap, providing a place and time for publishers to sell books directly to the public. Fairs typically resemble de-facto book stores, with titles for sale at publisher’s booths often at lower prices than they might be available in regular bookstores.

While publishers often see the fairs as an opportunity to interact with their public, the overall effect is to put publishers in direct competition—at least for a short, albeit important period—with the bookstores themselves, who are then tasked with selling the same books from the same publishers once the fair is over. Some believe this system has only served to stymie the growth of bookstores throughout the Arab world.

Of course, there are other factors as well, many of which are the same throughout the world. In Beirut, for example, the esteemed 30-year-old Ras Beirut Bookshop was forced to close in December of last year after the building in which it was housed—one strategically facing the American University in Beirut campus—was bought by property developers. The building was subsequently torn down and luxury apartments were built in its place.

So, the question remains:  If the Beirut is forced due to cultural divisions to have two book fairs, do the booksellers in the city suffer doubly?

The French Compromise

The Francophone book fair was founded in 1993 by the French Embassy in Lebanon in an effort to promote the French language. It was initially called “Lire en français et en musique” (Read in French and in Music). Then, in 2008, the French Embassy decided to stop organizing the fair (security reasons were cited), so this year, it was organized by the Lebanese syndicate of book importers and re-christened the “Salon francophone du livre de Beyrouth.”

Lebanon remains among the top ten importers of French books worldwide, according to the BIEF (French Publishing International Bureau) and, in the case of the Francophone fair, it was natural to have booksellers—instead of publishers—manage the stands and sell the books to the public. The books are imported and the publishers themselves remain overseas, making it less than practical for publishers to sell their own wares on-site.

The system has worked well, but comes with its own set of difficulties: Many of the book importers, who are generally also booksellers, sell the same titles, thus raising questions like where authors should sign their books.

The 2009 Francophone Fair

At this year’s fair, held from October 23 to November 1, the Nobel Prize-winning author J.M.Z. Le Clezio was invited to read and sign books but instead of appearing at any of the stands, Le Clezio signed at the exhibit center’s conference room, “so as to allow every bookseller to have a chance to sell his Le Clezio books” it was said.

That said, this year’s event also came at an interesting time, with the city serving as World Book Capitol, something that likely infused the event with a more diverse international flavor. France’s Ile-de-France department served as this year’s guest of honor, and the fair featured numerous Parisian publishers—including many small independent houses—who brought books not typically featured in Beirut bookstores. The culture department of Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur, from the South of France, hosted a stand, as did the countries of Belgium and Switzerland.

Lebanese houses that publish in French were also welcome, as they are every year. They, too, sell books on the stands of the booksellers alongside those brought in by the importers. Like at the Arabic fair, this provides them with a unique venue for communicating with their local readers. Still, though the Francophone book fair feels more like a booksellers’ fair than a publisher’s fair, it concerns only books written in France, and thus excludes all the other booksellers in the country and is not wholly representative of the cultural diversity of the nation.

And so, the question still remains: Why not have a single book fair, promoting the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity, allowing the different cultures to meet and mingle around books, to be exposed to each group’s favorite authors and literature, hear the same talks?

What is clear, sadly, is that in both the “French” and “Arab” fairs, as they are more commonly known, the deficiencies of the area’s book industry has a direct impact on the readers. Instead of using literature to fill the cultural gap, they unwillingly feed a latent, but very perceptible, social fracture.

Yasmina Jraissati is the president of the Paris-based RAYA, a literary agency which specializes in Arabic language writers.

READ: Coverage of the events at this year’s Francophone book fair from Lebanon Now!

VISIT: The Web site for the Francophone book fair.

BONUS: Should Beirut Merge Its Two Book Fairs?

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  2. [...] Beirut, UNESCO’s 2009 World Book Capital, has a divided literary culture. [...]

  3. [...] “Publishing Perspectives,” Yasmina Jraissati urges a single book fair, to unite French- and Arab-reading publics, rather than two fairs to divide an already (sub)divided [...]

  4. [...] coverage of Lebanon’s last year’s dueling Francophone and Arabic-language book fairs here. GD Star [...]

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