Whenever I was in Cairo, I would visit a certain bookshop. Other people visiting Cairo were even more enthusiastic to check out the new stock available at the bookshop. For many Arabs, the Madbouli bookshop is a centre of knowledge, and simply an amazing place. We would joyfully read the titles of the books available at the bookstore, some of which were cheap and some of which were banned. If you met Hajj Madbouli, the owner of the bookshop, it was as if you were meeting one of the last great symbols of Arab history.
We all knew that Hajj Madbouli was a great credit to the Arab world. His enthusiasm was unlimited. With his books, he enriched the field of literature regardless of any protests [against the content of the books he sold and published] and was satisfied with what little profit he could make from book selling.
Why didn’t this self-made man, who taught himself to read, and taught us all about culture, try to develop his business further?
During a book fair a few years ago, I said to one of Madbouli’s associates, “Madbouli is known to have a sterling reputation, great experience, and a specialized niche with many exciting titles, so why does he not do what the Saudi booksellers are doing and turn his bookshop into a joint stock company?”
Why didn’t he do what Saqi Books in London did and affiliate himself with a distribution network comprised of international university libraries? Why didn’t he try to establish and consolidate a relationship with an international foreign publishing house in order to exchange titles with it? Why didn’t he set up an order and delivery service to encourage the selling of books? Why didn’t he at least open other branches of the shop?
Madbouli’s associate convinced me that if Hajj Madbouli and other Arab publishers had such profit-making business ideas in mind then perhaps they would not have chosen the profession of bookselling in the first place, as it is a profession that reaps little profit. Most books that are sold are cooking books and books about alternative medicine. Long ago, owners of small bookshops kept the word ‘bookshop’ on the front of their shop even though they mainly sold school supplies, stationary, and children’s toys.
A report by the Arab Thought Foundation published during its last meeting in Cairo shocked many, even though they were well aware of the problems in advance. The report revealed that the annual per capita book publishing ratio is one book per 12,000 people in the Arab world in comparison to one book per 500 people in Britain.
Even though I am well aware of the difficult situation facing publishers in the Arab world, I do not agree with their permanent state of despair. I feel that the new generations love reading more than previous generations, despite the fact that this is contrary to common belief. The secret lies in e-publishing. I have seen how many people are keen to download e-books from the internet in spite of the rudimentary Arab facilities for this, and despite the lack of a systematic trend within Arab society to encourage young people to read. Rather, this new development is part of an international increase in e-books and I think it will change a lot on the socio-cultural level in our society.
Hajj Madbouli passed away, but the man whose books can be found in every Arab bookshop and library around the world left behind the truth; that without books, there is no civilization.