As the Syrian crisis deteriorated, hundreds of publishing houses were forced to shut down, especially those with printing facilities located in Rif Dimashq, the province taking in the countryside surrounding Damascus, and the scene of fierce fighting since 2011.
Haytham Hafez, head of the Syrian Publishers Association and owner of his own eponymous publishing house, described the impact the conflict has had on the business: “Frankly, book publishing is the profession that has been most affected by the crisis . . . as Syrian publishers we suffered greatly from the fact that most of the publishing houses exist in rural areas that continue to witness daily battles.”
Many of the leading publishers have relocated to surrounding Arab countries. “The countries that functioned as incubators for Syrian publishers were Lebanon, Egypt, the UAE and Algeria,” says Hafez. However these countries do not have strong publishing traditions and provide only the printing facilities, while the editing and commissioning still largely takes place in Syria, according to Hafez. “The majority of publishing houses have kept their offices open in Syria to receive, edit, prepare, and then print books outside Syria.”
The publisher told Asharq Al-Awsat that nearly fifty percent of those active in the business in Damascus before the war are still operating, but that they have to contend with numerous challenges such as the expense of shipping and being refused the visas needed to attend book fairs. Syrian book fairs have been boycotted while publishers are often excluded from the invitation lists to regional exhibitions, and when they do receive an invite the authorities often refuse to issue entry visas. There is also the problem of shipping their titles to booksellers and customers. “In the past, there was an accelerated mail delivery service for books, which was stopped, and so was the air cargo service,” says Hafez.
On May 29 Street in downtown Damascus stands the Al-Bashayer publishing house. The owner, Adel Assaf, is holding out against all odds but prospects do not look good. “I established my own publishing house twenty-five years ago. I used to print nearly ten books every year. Yet, I haven’t sold a single book in the past four years, and now I live on my stationary shop’s earnings, which do not exceed 2,000 Lebanese pounds (1.30 US dollars) per day, an amount with which I can barely support my family.” Next-door is the former home of the Dar Al-Mada publishing house, owned by celebrated Iraqi writer Fakhri Karim who decided to close up shop and move his business to Beirut.
Others have been more successful in keeping their business going. Ammar Tabbaa, the director of the publishing houses Al-Fayhaa and Al-Manhal, recently returned to Damascus to restart branches in Syria after leaving following the outbreak of war. “When the crisis first erupted, the number of books printed by the house shrunk by 70 percent, and we had to print our books outside Syria. We moved our equipment from Rif Dimashq to Lebanon. Yet, at the beginning of last year, and having been able to set up a printing house in Damascus, we gradually began to resume printing [in Syria] owing to the significant demand for our material.” His publishing houses produce educational resources, children’s books, and novels. “We currently rely on the Iraqi market that imports many Syrian books, particularly the shipment between Damascus, Baghdad, Najaf and Erbil.”
Yazan Yaqoub, owner of the Al-Safahat publishing house, left Syria and is now printing books in Dubai, but has managed to keep the Syria office open. Over the phone he told Asharq Al-Awsat:“I embarked on distributing the house’s books within the UAE, and the house represented Dubai at a number of book fairs. Simultaneously, we continued to print books in Damascus.” Like Tabbaa, Yaqoub is still working with Iraqi publishing houses as books are printed in Damascus and sent on to Iraq. “Damascus has always been, and continues to function as the house’s main prop, and our activity in Dubai has contributed to raising the house’s distribution rates, especially in the Gulf region,” he said.
Despite these positive signs, Ali Al-Qayem, editor-in-chief of Al-Maarifa magazine, which is issued by the Syrian Ministry of Culture, believes the decline in Syrian publishing will have a deep impact in the long-term on people’s education and creativity. “The crisis has negatively affected people’s innovation and their contact with authors who have stopped writing or have moved to other counties,” he said.
“Without a doubt, the crisis has clearly reflected on the publishing industry, as many publishing houses had to emigrate to other Arab countries . . . continual electricity blackouts and soaring fuel rates have both impacted the book printing market.”
“Syrian books were once at the forefront because printing costs were much less than in other Arab countries,” Qayem said. He also blames internationally-imposed sanctions for damaging the industry, “as a result of the economic siege, the price of paper has increased six fold, reflecting negatively on purchasing power [for publishers] as well as on the book itself, as the price of books has increased many times as much.”
He added that prior to the crisis, publishing houses in Syria used to print nearly ten thousand copies of any single popular book, compared to only one thousand or even five hundred copies at present. Today, a publishing house in Syria will not print a book by a prominent author unless the writer pays in advance from their own pocket.
An official source at the Syrian General Book Authority, affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, stated that book production had contracted in the years following the start of the crisis but that the number of titles issued by the authority in 2014 still exceeded 130—this means that nearly eleven books are printed every month. “This rate is considered reasonable, considering the throttling crisis the country is suffering,” the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said.