Wednesday, March 07, 2012

The Arab Spring and the book trade

Raidy Printing Group’s MarieJoe Raidy (above, centre)

One year on from the first uprisings, the ramifications of the Arab Spring are still unfolding; not least for the Arab book trade. Paul Cochrane reports from Beirut

The Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) over the last year have had a mixed effect on indigenous Arabic publishing. Book sales have plunged due to instability, and while some countries have loos- ened up on censorship, others have clamped down. Still, there is guarded – optimism about the future among publishers.

“The Arab Spring affected all business last year, as people were not interested in reading books,” says André Gaspard, managing director of Arabic-language publishing house Dar al Saqi, the Beirut-based, sister company of London-based Saqi Books.

“I’m glad that bookshops survived. From February to September 2011, it was bad, with our turnover less than 50% [compared with the same period in 2010]. In some places in the Gulf, turnover was just 10% [compared with the same period]. We’re big in the Gulf market and it was the same response from everybody: ‘Nobody is coming into our bookshop.’”

The Arabic publishing industry was already feeling the pinch from the global economic crisis, high illiteracy, and low readership levels even before the uprisings. The Arab League—the regional organisation which has 22 members across MENA, including Syria, which is currently suspended— estimates that 70 million people in the Arab world are illiterate (or 35.6% of the population), compared with a global rate of 18%. On readership, Gaspard cites a study three years ago that suggested that only 1% of university graduates read one book or more unrelated to their discipline each year.

An estimated 10,000 titles are published in Arabic annually, with an average print run of 3,000 per title—equivalent to 30 million books per annum, or 0.08 per person across the region, Gaspard notes. With a book costing between US$5 and $10, the market is estimated at $225m.

“Some say 40,000 titles are published a year, but I don’t believe this,” says Gaspard. “Whether there are 10,000 titles or 40,000, that is not much for 340 million people when you consider Britain publishes 200,000 titles a year.”

However, he expects book sales to rise in the coming years— particularly fiction. “I think publishing in MENA will be in better shape in five years’ time. We are starting from a low level so it will get better—for how can it get worse?”

Freeing the word

One reason for publisher optimism is that Arab governments in general are investing more in education. Average school enrolment reached 86% in 2011—up from 75% in 1999, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Also, and although it is in its infancy, the Arab Spring is having an undoubted thawing effect on censorship in certain countries. In Tunisia and Egypt, the first to revolt and overthrow autocratic regimes, censorship has weakened. Following the fall of the Tunisian president last year, the interim government abolished the Information Ministry, which had overseen censorship, and declared “the complete liberty of information”.

Gaspard says this was evident in that none of Dar al Saqi’s Arabic- language books had been barred from entry in 2011. “There are no censorship laws in Tunisia now, but who knows what could happen in the coming months?”

In Egypt, thousands of titles banned for criticising the regime during former President Hosni Mubarak’s rule are now available. The media is also freer, according to Saudi Arabian author and translator Hamad Alisa, who lives in Morocco.

“Before the Egyptian uprising, I sent a review of [British/Israeli historian] Avi Shlaim’s The Lion of Jordan to an Egyptian newspaper. As it was about [the late] King Hussein, they said they wouldn’t publish it because Mubarak had close relations with Jordan, and anything against Jordan was against Egypt, so the newspaper could have been sued. But after Mubarak was ousted they published the review, as there is now no special relationship with Jordan.

“The Arab Spring certainly helped Arab writers to critique other countries, like Saudi Arabia and Jordan, where corruption is high. If the regime has changed they now have full freedom to write, whereas two years ago they couldn’t,” Alisa said.

Saudi author Hamad Alisa at the Beirut Book Fair 2012

Cultural sensitivities

Where uprisings continue—such as in Yemen and Syria—censorship remains draconian, and other regimes are trying to suppress popular dissent. “Where the so-called Arab Spring has not happened, censorship is maybe worse than before, as [governments] are afraid and there is a tightening up, generally speaking,” says Gaspard.

“Lebanon is the most liberal and Saudi Arabia the most conservative, with everywhere else in between,” says MarieJoe Raidy, creative director at Raidy Printing Group, one of the region’s leading presses for books and magazines, with facilities in Beirut and Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

For instance, Raidy prints up to four versions of a magazine to cater to different markets, depending on cultural sensitivities and censorship laws. This is particularly noticeable in images, with any pictorial form of nudity or scantily clad women blacked- or whited-out in publications. In terms of text, an article critical of the UAE would not be allowed to be distributed there, but it could be allowed in other countries.

Censorship is typically carried out by the ministries of information or the interior: sensitive topics include politics, ruling families, religion and even certain science subjects, such as evolution.

“Many Arab regimes are afraid of the printed word,” says Gaspard. “Books in English or French are fine, as they are the languages the elite read, but Arabic is not.” One example: while the late Saudi novelist Abdul Rahman Munif’s work is banned in Arabic in the Gulf, it is available in English translation.

In most of these countries, books must be cleared for import as well as printing. In Saudi Arabia, this has resulted in demand for books published in more liberal Arab countries. “If you want to publish there, you need permission from the Culture and Information Ministry, which reads every word. So any book that is approved has a stigma attached, whereas books from Beirut and Cairo are printed without prior permission,” says Hamad Alisa. “That is why I don’t publish in Saudi Arabia. There is a stigma that unless your book has been prohibited, it is not critical or has nothing interesting in it.”

Policies have eased in the kingdom since former ruler King Fahd’s death in 2005, with Saudi customs officials now instructed not to seize books for personal consumption on arrival.

Tome of contention

A generally softer approach to censorship is evident across the region, Gaspard says. “Censorship is getting slightly more relaxed. Forbidden books are no longer a scandal. Previously a ban was accompanied by threats and aggressive action against the publisher. Over the last five years, they say to us, ‘sorry guys, we have to ban it’, whereas before we were seen as devils. Still, it is totally stupid as content is available online.”

Religious books remain contentious—either banned by governments or through pressure from religious groups. This was evident at the government-backed Riyadh International Book Fair in Saudi Arabia last March. Considered to be the first of its kind in the country to have relative freedom from censorship, it was nevertheless stormed by some 500 religious extremists denouncing books and poetry as “un-Islamic”. The authorities arrested almost 100 of the protestors.

In Kuwait, the government banned some books at a fair in 2010. The Kuwaiti Information Ministry’s censorship committee stated that “just 25 titles out of 24,000 books [were banned] for abusing God, prophets and other religious figures; books on pornography; and others undermining Kuwait”. The move was lauded by Islamists, but drew criticism from liberal parliamentarians.

Though censorship is not as pervasive in Lebanon as elsewhere, religion is still a sensitive subject, overseen by Dar al Fatwa, the arbiter of Islamic ruling, for books on Islam. Druze clerics, from a religious minority in Lebanon and the wider region, lobbied successfully for the Arabic version of the late Philip Hitti’s The Origins of the Druze People and Religion— first published in 1928, and most recently – in 2007 by Saqi—to be banned. The Maronite Christian church was able to pressure the government to ban Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in 2004.

Small wonder, then, that Arab book trade optimism is tempered by uncertainty. “There is a long way to go for a blossoming of Arab publishing,” says Gaspard.

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