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LEBANON: Books unbound in Beirut

December 21, 2007 |  9:08 am

Bookfair2_3An old Arabic saying goes, "What the Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read."

Today, this proverb could be easily challenged. The bulk of Arab writers are not from Egypt and the number of those who read books in Iraq, let alone the Arab world as a whole, is alarmingly low.

The only constant is Lebanon, which remains home to the Arab world's most thriving publishing houses. One important reason is the atmosphere of freedom that does not exist in any other Arab country. This results in Arab authors turning to Lebanese publishers for printing books on sex, politics and other sensitive topics.

This hypothesis can be tested these days at Beirut's annual Arabic book fair. Now in its 51st year, it hosts more than 100 Arabic publishing houses mostly from Lebanon, according to Lebanon's Daily Star.

An array of controversial titles are on display at the fair. Dar Al-Saqi, one of the Arab world's most audacious publishing houses, offers a daring novel by Saudi writer Samar Al-Mokren. The book tells the  story of a woman who gets entangled in an illicit love affair in her uncompromising conservative society and ends up serving a seven-year jail sentence. 

The novel comes after the massive success of another novel by the same publishing house, "The Girls of Riyadh," in which writer Rajaa Alsanea recounts the intimate daily experiences of young Saudi women. Needless to say that both books, like most writings even barely touching on sexual issues were banned in many Persian Gulf countries.

"Half of our books are banned in the Gulf," said Bilal Rida from Dar Al-Saqi. "Even books with photos showing a glimpse of a woman's flesh can be forbidden from entering Saudi Arabia."

Beirut-based writer Rayyan Al-Shawaf writes in the Book Critics Circle blog wrote:

That the atmosphere in Lebanon is significantly freer makes all the difference insofar as the annual book fair is concerned, as well as that of the general state of publishing. Not only are censorship laws relatively lax, but cultural norms tend toward the liberal on the subject of freedom of expression.

Other books from Dar Al-Saqi include titles on Al Qaeda, novels by an Egyptian feminist, Iraqi poetry and a study of homosexuality in the Middle East.

BookfairOne curiosity is "The Axis of Evil Cookbook," by Gill Partington, which blends delectable recipes from Iran, North Korea and Syria with cultural and political anecdotes. The book was published by Saqi Books, the London-based affiliate of Dar Al-Saqi.

Another renowned publisher, Dar Riad Al-Rayess, is offering 40 new titles this year, including books by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish and publications on politics and history in the Middle East.

"The relation between the publisher and the censor is much healthier in Lebanon than in other Arab countries," says Nasser Flayti of Dar Al-Rayess. "Here, at least, you don't have to send manuscripts for censorship. Censors can only stop a book after it's published."

— Raed Rafei in Beirut

Photos: An ad for an Arabic translation of former CIA director George Tenet's "In the Line of Fire" rests atop copies of Islamic texts at the Beirut annual book fair, while (below) copies of English language books are sold, including "The Axis of Evil Cookbook." Credit: Raed Rafei