Literature and understanding Lebanon

For all the benefits of immediacy that the electronic and print media offer, there are times when we reach for the heft of a book to try to give context to history as it unfolds around us. So, in the past few weeks, there has been reason aplenty to be grateful for the existence of Saqi Books, whose wide range of titles includes Hizbullah, Israel’s Ayatollahs and Rafiq Hariri and the Fate of Lebanon.

For those who like to take more winding avenues towards understanding, Saqi also publishes fiction, poetry and books on art, food, drink, philosophy and culture — its original focus on the Middle East having widened in the past few years to include writers and subjects from Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Balkans, France, the United States and the United Kingdom.

But, while Saqi’s books have always showed a fierce concern for worlds of conflict, they now find their own fates tied more directly to war and bombings. Saqi’s warehouse is in Beirut and, at the time of writing, the publishing house had just received word that the warehouse had been bombed: its ceiling collapsed, its iron door melted.

Among the books stored in the warehouse were Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women and Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, two collections due in London in August. Soon after the war started, someone from Dar al-Saqi (Saqi’s sister company in Beirut) sent six copies of each book to Jordan with a friend fleeing the country — the 12 books later made their way to Paris, just in time for a planned window display. The rest of the books, or what remains of them, are still in the warehouse.

Meanwhile, in London, stocks of previously printed books are running low and Saqi has to try to find a printer for its new catalogue. More­over, all those who work at Saqi are deeply concerned about their colleagues at Dar al-Saqi — a large number of whom have chosen to remain in Lebanon rather than escape. Those from the south have moved in with colleagues from the north, and many of the Dar al-Saqi team are now involved with relief work. Paralleling the shifts in their lives — publishers turned voluntary aid workers — is the transformation of cultural centres (such as the one in Beirut where Dar al-Saqi hosts book launches) into makeshift aid centres.

Brian Whitaker, a Guardian journalist and the author of Unspeakable Love: Gay and Lesbian Life in the Middle East, is only one of the Saqi authors now in Lebanon. Others include Jean Said Makdisi, whose Teta, Mother and Me is a family memoir starting in Ottoman Syria in the 1880s and concluding with the civil war in Lebanon, and Alexandre Najjar, whose recently published The School of War powerfully recalls growing up in war-ravaged Beirut. Najjar had only recently returned to Beirut after seven years of voluntary exile.

The civil war in Lebanon is, in fact, directly responsible for the existence of Saqi Books. In 1979, childhood friends André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub left a warring Beirut and went to London. There, in Westbourne Grove, they started up Al-Saqi Bookshop, which quickly became established as a beacon of enquiry and intellectual exchange in London, providing readers in England with books about the Middle East, as well as allowing travellers from the Middle East to buy books banned in their own countries. By 1984, Gaspard and Ghoussoub had ventured into publishing — a natural extension of the philosophy of Al-Saqi Bookshop — and, three years later, Saqi Books became an independent publishing concern.

Dar al-Saqi was established the same year in Beirut, with a mandate to publish seminal Western texts in Arabic and to provide a home for Arab writers, many of whom were unable to find publishers in their own repressively governed nations.

Despite the paucity of distribution channels, many of Saqi’s authors — and books — rapidly became huge successes. At the heart of its ethos is an understanding of the need for two-way exchanges: Western books translated into Arabic, Arabic books translated into English, constant conversations between Beirut and London, titles which demand that readers from different parts of the globe reconsider their perceptions of their worlds and also that they look more deeply into received wisdom about other worlds.

It is an ethos that has enabled Saqi to build up a list of exceptional writers. In addition to its unparalleled list of literary luminaries from the Middle East, Saqi publishes acclaimed writers such as the Albanian winner of the first international Booker prize, Ismail Kadare, Argentine-born Alberto Manguel, British writer Maggie Gee, Aamer Hussein from Pakistan and Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic.

Among the most poignant of Saqi’s recent publications is Samir Khalaf’s Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj. The Bourj is a public square in Beirut described as an “open museum of the world’s civilisations”. During the Lebanese civil war and in the Israeli air-strikes that followed, this vibrant, cosmopolitan space was reduced to a no-man’s land. As the Saqi catalogue explains, Khalaf’s book “argues passionately that its reinvention is at hand, and must be encouraged: the Bourj must reclaim its disinherited legacy of pluralism and tolerance”. It is among the books in the bombed-out warehouse in Beirut. — Â

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