When a Book is a Stone: The Role of Publishing in Areas of Conflict

In Global Trade Talk by Saskia Vogel

Holger Ehling, Richard Ali, Marwan Adwan, Volodymyr Samoylenko at the Frankfurt Book Fair

Holger Ehling, Richard Ali, Marwan Adwan, Volodymyr Samoylenko at the Frankfurt Book Fair

By Saskia Vogel

What happens when you’re a publisher in a country where every book—published, bought, or read—is considered a stone thrown in the face of your oppressors?

On the Weltempfang stage on Wednesday, Holger Ehling discussed “Publishing in Times of Conflict” with publishers Marwan Adwan (Mamouh Awwan Publishing House, Syria), Richard Ali (Parrésia Publishers Ltd.) and Volodymyr Samoylenko (Nika-Centre Publishing House, Ukraine).

When people are thirsty, hungry, and displaced and their cities are in ruins, how do you sell them a book? And why do you keep publishing? Adwan started the presentation with a summary of the ongoing conflict in Syria and the challenges facing its publishing industry.

For Richard Ali, “Nigeria has almost had a policy of fighting against intellectuals and writers by controlling the educational system. Perhaps Nigeria is the most expensive country to publish a book, yet we have forests and all these resources. The industry has been deliberately destroyed…It’s not a war of blood and limbs, but it is no less dangerous.”
Both Adwan and Volodymyr Samoylenko agree that people who are holding a book won’t pick up a machine gun.

“I believe that what we are doing is very important because we are producing a cultural product and this will be the product that will eventually unify both the Ukrainian and Russian people,” said Samoylenko.

Adwan cited literacy as a general problem in Arab countries, where 25% of people are illiterate and the other 75% may only read around 60 minutes per year. Since the civil war in Syria broke out, the number of books from Syria and beyond registered with its national library has fallen. In 2000, 12,778 were registered; in 2012, just 931.

Damaged electricity and transportation infrastructure, massive inflation, and businesses being unable to operate are major problems. Formal distribution has become a nigh-impossible endeavor, replaced by informal arrangements made by phone between individual booksellers and publishers.

But Adwan says, “I believe in hope. In Syria, we need help developing the society. Children need books to leave the dark reality around them. The book industry has never stopped. The best way to develop a society is reading. We can’t stop producing books because there is a war.”

While the number of books published has gone down in the Ukraine and the book trade with Russia has stopped, Samoylenko agreed, “We continue living, work, going on, and people need books.”

About the Author

Saskia Vogel


Saskia Vogel is a writer and a Swedish-to-English translator. Her writing has appeared in Granta, The Paris Review, The White Review, Sight&Sound, and The Offing. Her debut novel, I Am a Pornographyer, will be published in 2019 by Dialogue Books/Little, Brown (UK), Coach House Books (North America), Mondial (Sweden) and Alpha Decay (Spain).