Historic Bookstores in Damascus Closing Doors

Every year during the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha vendors used to move their goods onto the sidewalks in Souq al-Salihiya. (Photo: Al-Akhbar)

By: Anas Zarzar

Published Thursday, December 15, 2011

Damascus - For some four decades, Maysaloun bookstore in the heart of Damascus was one of the city’s most important sources for publications on leftist and progressive thought, but in January of 2010, it closed its doors after its owners put it up for commercial investment.

This historical bookstore was not the first to meet such a fate; many other bookstores had already been converted into shops, fast food restaurants, or branches of the private commercial banks that have invaded the Syrian market in recent years.

Maysaloun was a vendor of the Soviet publishers Raduga and Progress as well as the tapes of Sheikh Imam, Ziad Rahbani, Marcel Khalife, and Khaled al-Haber. At the time, leftist intellectuals could hardly believe that it was over, until they found their favorite books being sold by sidewalk booksellers.

After the closing of Maysaloun, one thing led to another. It was not long before Zahra bookstore was closed as well, with a private commercial bank taking its place. In turn, the owners of al-Nahda al-Arabiyya bookstore, located near the Semiramis Hotel, put up a sign advertising that one of the oldest bookstores in Damascus was also available for commercial investment, though it remains open for the time being.

But the trend of closing Syrian bookshops began before Maysaloun. Yaqza bookstore on al-Mutanabbi Street was put up for sale and al-A’ila bookstore in Najme Square became a pharmacy. As for Zahra, part of it has become an internet café, which is to say nothing of the bookstores that have been reduced to sandwich shops or shoe stores, as is the case with Fikr wa Fann bookstore in Lattakia.

Abu Ahmad, one of the oldest booksellers in Damascus, explains that “visitors and customers have become rare these days, and the painful irony is that some of them want to sell their books to us rather than buy our books.”

The successive closure of the most famous bookstores in Damascus sums up the situation of the market for literature in Syria. A quick survey of the 27th annual Damascus Book Exhibition that opened in September might be enough to answer questions surrounding the state of reading in Syria, with the printing and publishing environment in the shadow of a new cultural reality, influenced, like all things, by the events of the Syrian uprising.

“Perhaps this is the worst year of any that we’ve participated in the exhibition,” says Imad Houria, a vendor in the General Bookstore, which has participated in all of the exhibitions thus far. He adds, “we were flooded this year with the titles of contemporary political books that treat the Syrian crisis in some of their chapters, but we lost the bet and the books remained piled up in warehouses.”

Sales are not the only thing that are down. The number of new books available in bookstores has also dropped with the sudden rise in the value of the dollar. Houria said, “the number of books the big Arab publishers were supplying us went down because their owners were afraid of the events of the Syrian uprising and the downturn in the book market.”

In Houria’s bookstore Alem al-Maarifa in downtown Damascus, business was no better. Bookseller Mohammad Nouri also confirms that Damascus publishers have been printing fewer copies since the beginning of the uprising.

The crisis has changed the habits of sidewalk booksellers too. Every year during the holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha vendors used to move their goods onto the sidewalks in Souq al-Salihiya. Their presence transformed the area into a site of pilgrimage for intellectuals and bookworms, who would wait for the holidays in search of particular titles; books whose owners prefer to sell precisely on those days, when their true value is appreciated.

However, Azad al-Molla Ahmad, who comes from Northern Syria to sell books on the sidewalk, preferred to keep his books piled up at home this past holiday season. He may have been the wiser for it.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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