The old saw goes, “القاهره تكتب و بيروت تطبع و بغداد تقرأ” — Cairo writes, Beirut Publishes, and Baghdad reads:
It was yesterday that award-winning novelist Iman Humaydan, who recently released her Fifty Grams of Paradise (eligible for the 2017 IPAF), noted on Facebook that “out of the six Arabic novels selected for the ‘Arabic Booker’ shortlist, five were published in Lebanon.”
“At least,” Humaydan wrote, in a post she said could be quoted, “there’s something we can still be happy for and defend in this sad nation. Congratulations to Lebanese publishing.”
Lebanese publishing has seen its ups and downs since the great author Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (d. 1887) worked in the industry, notably its setbacks during the country’s 1975-1990 civil war. Yet it continues to be a central force in publishing works for adults and children.
According to the Frankfurt Buchmesse, although Lebanon is “a very small market (population 4.425 million in 2012),” the “Lebanese publishing sector is very dynamic and its local sales represent only 10% of its total production. Lebanon, and Egypt, produce together around 80% of the total of Arabic books published annually in the Arab world. Unfortunately, as in all Arab countries, exact figures regarding the publishing industry are not available.”
This is not the first year Lebanon has dominated the IPAF shortlist. In 2009, for instance, Lebanon also published five of the six finalists.
That year, Rana Idriss of the prestigious Dar al-Adab — which has a book on this year’s shortlist — complained in an interview with Qantara, “It’s a pity that publishers are not allowed to recommend more than three books for the Arabic Booker.” As the Qantara article noted, it’s hardly just Lebanese authors being published in Lebanon. The recent novels by Syria’s most prominent writers — Nihad Sirees, Khaled Khalifa, Samar Yazbek, Mustafa Khalifa — were published by Lebanese houses. This year, it’s works from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Morocco, and Egypt.
Not everyone is as enthusiatic about the current state of Lebanese publishing. Felix Lang argued in The Lebanese Post-Civil War Novel (2016), that, “Authors of the arabophone subfield are by and large disenchanted with Lebanese publishing, and especially editing, which they do not deem very professional. Many have little stories to relate illustrating the state of editing, my favorite being Hassan Daoud’s: he told me that only the translator [Marilyn Booth] of his Ghina al-Bitriq (The Penguin’s Song, Dawud, 1998) found out that it contained a page from a novel by another novelist, Jabbour al-Douaihy, who was with the same publisher at the time (int. November 2011).”
However, this unfortunately applies not specifically to Lebanese publishers, but across arabophone publishing.
Also, any discussion of the current state of publishing and bookselling in Beirut would be remiss in not noting a current project spearheaded by DJ Wrisley, who notes that the “Lebanese book sector was [and is] deeply involved in not only publishing, but also distribution, printing and translation in and out of Arabic, French and English[.]” Wrisley will be presenting a paper on the movements of Lebanese literary life in May of this year. In the meantime, you can look at a “thick map” (in progress) “of both existing and bygone booksellers/publishers in the Beirut metropolitan area.”