By Tugrul Mende
In September 2020, Rasha Hilwi, Fadi Abdelnour, and Mohammad Rabie set out on an adventure that would evolve into a haven for Arabic books in Berlin. Located in a backyard, the Khan Aljanub bookshop attracts local and international readers who are interested in reading the newest publications in Arabic. Focusing on a variety of fiction and nonfiction books, the store has a wide selection of graphic novels and children books, while you can also buy classics such as Naguib Mahfouz and Ghassan Kanafani or the latest book by Iman Mersal. Khan Aljanub is not only selling books, but also publishing essential reads like Ahmed Naji’s and Dellair Youssef’s latest books and Hilal Chouman’s upcoming novel.
In this discussion, Fadi Abdelnour and Mohammad Rabie reflect on their time at Khan Aljanub and how they are shaping its identity as a publishing house and bookshop.
How did you get to know each other?
Fadi Abdelnour: The bookshop introduced and brought us together. Rasha Hilwi and I decided, in summer 2018, to check into the possibility of opening a bookstore. We didn’t want to do it upfront. We ended up having a small popup store in December 2018, which went very well. Rabie was thinking about coming to Berlin, and he already knew Rasha. He ended up calling me and talked about opening up a bookstore. We thought it might be better to have a joint project than two separate ones in a small market.
What kind of books did you grow up reading, and how much did your tastes influence the selection of Khan Aljanub?
Mohammad Rabie: I started with reading novels for teenagers such as action and adventure novels. There were a couple of series by the Egyptian author Nabil Farouk. He passed away a year ago or so. One was a sci-fi series I was very fond of, while most of my friends were not very fond of it. The other one was about an Egyptian agent; everybody was fond of this one.
I started reading the classics such as Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein, etc. Then I was very involved in contemporary writings. Of course, there was a lot of translated literature, novels particularly, written in English. This didn’t affect my choice of books here. Usually, we don’t know what book will or won’t sell. Usually I choose bestsellers, philosophical books, and of course classics. We don’t sell a lot of religious books. I don’t think we need these kinds of books in this place.
FA: I tried to remember which novel in Arabic I read first. One of the earliest books I read cover to cover was 1984. I found a translation lying around at home, and I picked it up and started reading as a young teenager. I read a lot of stuff such as Hanna Mina, Ghassan Kanafani, Mahmoud Darwish, and other Arabic and international classics. As Rabie said, we are trying to figure out what the market here requires, but at the same time, we value good literature that is artistically and contextually challenging and outstanding.
Even with books translated into Arabic, we try to look at what kind of translations these are. These are our criteria in our selection of everything. It extends to fiction but also to non-fiction and children’s literature. We try to focus on aesthetically and visually outstanding books. It definitely has to do with the kind of things we like to read, and our criteria as well of what is good literature and what is good non-fiction.
What was the market in Berlin like when you first started?
FA: The market here is very limited — the supply is very limited. There are a lot of places that used to sell Arabic books. There are a lot of hot bestsellers of pirated books out there. There was not much supply to the market here, but our knowledge and sense told us there was a lot of demand. We just tried to bring a wider selection to the market here, and do this through learning by doing. The market here was very receptive of our selection, and encouraging in that sense. We don’t cover everything we want to get. We need to do that in the coming year as well. We have the basis for our selection of all the books; we try to keep tabs on new books and new publications, and also maybe some small publishing houses. We have some of these titles, but there are definitely more.
What kind of challenges have you faced at Khan Aljanub since you started?
FA: We had the challenges of the pandemic mixed up with the challenges of having a new bookstore in Berlin in an unexplored market sector. I’m not able to say which challenges may be assigned to the pandemic or having a new bookstore in an unexplored market. One challenge is connected to the pandemic. The original plan was to have more events at the beginning, so people would come and get to know the place, which would accelerate the process of getting established. With the pandemic, it was hard. We didn’t have a chance to do that. Distribution was affected by the pandemic as well. We had problems with this as well. Publishers are not as easygoing as they used to be. They work less on commission. These are things related to the pandemic. Things didn’t go as planned. It is harder to get books from specialized publishers.
MR: I think the main challenge was that we just opened in September 2020 and nobody knew about us and we needed to do a lot of advertising. Of course, we wanted to host events here at the place, but we couldn’t do anything.
How has your work as a bookstore owner affected your work as a novelist?
MR: I am trying to continue to write, and I have started writing a new novel. It is very difficult to find free time and to concentrate on the writing. I also have my freelance job as a book editor. My last novel was published in January 2020. After two months, the whole corona pandemic started. I didn’t get that much attention, because of all that happened. There were a few problems. My Lebanese publisher couldn’t get the book into Egypt because of the pandemic. That doesn’t mean that I am thinking about something new. I don’t have the free time to do what I usually do.
What kind of books are people looking for usually?
MR: I think our bestsellers are children books. About adult books, I cannot say that there are specific books, maybe Iman Mersal’s book, for example. We sell a lot of nonfiction and classics. I consider Ghassan Kanfani to be a classic writer, and we sell a lot of his work. We also sell a lot of books for Germans who want to learn Arabic, like bilingual books. Even German literature translated into Arabic. They would buy the German edition and would read both books at the same time. Sometimes, I sell them very simple prose books or short-story collections or books by Mahfouz because he writes in a very high Arabic.
FA: I follow up on the technical side. We sold Ahmed Naji’s book. Ghassan Kanafani is selling well, even though a lot of time has passed since his death. Majd Kayyal sold very well. The market in Berlin is hard to describe. It is a mixed market. A lot of people are passing through Berlin, you don’t know if they live here or just pass by and whether they have access to books or not. There are a lot of things which make it difficult to see a pattern.
MR: We published Ahmed Naji’s book, and we made an international edition and we are going to sell it in Egypt. The Egyptian edition is still sold inside of Egypt. This has sold a lot. The strange thing is that there are waves of certain books selling very well. For example, I brought Ahmed Mourad’s latest novel from Cairo and it didn’t sell very well for about six months. Then, I think I sold all the copies in one month.
Do you have already something like regular customers?
FA: There are definitely regular customers who live in Berlin, and also we have a handful of customers we know by face and some also by name, who don’t live in Berlin but are shopping at our store when they are here. Every six months, they are coming and are buying heaps of books.
Is there a discrepancy between the online bookstore and the shop?
FA: I think we sell more in the shop than online. One of the challenges of the online shop is a lot of customers who buy Arabic books in Germany or in Europe are not yet used to e-commerce. There is the additional obstacle that people sometimes don’t have PayPal accounts or credit cards and this is difficult. We still have a lot of people on Facebook who we talk to, and they want a book, and we suggest that they order it online. They don’t buy it, and we have to get back to them. Some people would be ashamed to say they’re not able to do it or they don’t just answer.
MR: But there is not a very big gap.
What kind of books do you sell at the store?
FA: We have a very big collection of comics and graphic novels. But also nonfiction books, books of art and culture. We have some textbooks on art. We have a small collection of books in English and in German, literature translated into German, and some periodicals. One of the most important periodicals from Beirut is Bidayat. We have Awham from Berlin. This is done by a collective at the Kunsthochschule Weißensee. We are looking to have Arablit Quarterly at Khan Aljanub, too.
What are your thoughts about the future of Khan Aljanub?
MR: I am thinking about publishing more books. We already published one book. We will launch two books in the next couple of months. Hopefully, we will get new manuscripts and try to decide which is suitable to publish.
Do you approach the authors or do they approach you?
MR: It’s rather difficult to read a lot of manuscripts and to figure out what is possible. I used to read more than 100 manuscripts in a year and choose one or two. I don’t want this to happen again. I don’t have the time to read all of them. Usually we ask authors who have something new or are working on it. We ask our friends and translators, authors and journalists, whether they know about authors who are publishing new books. We often try to bring the latest editions published in Cairo and Beirut here. We are trying to get books from the Gulf states and the Emirates, for example. There are a lot of publishers there. A few of them publish very good books.
FA: There are also publishers from the Maghreb, like Tunis, Morocco, and Algeria. There are some very good publishers here as well. We would in the future definitly just try to cover most of the good publishers and have their books here. Like Rabie said, we’ll publish more books, and it seems Berlin has a special place in the Arab world. There are a lot of cultural events happening in Berlin focused on Arabic culture. We would like to be the publishers accompanying this cultural phenomenon. Also, we are not beholden to any laws which could make publishing difficult in one Arabic country or another. From our position in Berlin, this will shape our publishing identity. I wouldn’t exaggerate if I say in all of Europe, for there are not many other places in Europe where this selection of books may be available.
Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.