Nadine Chehade: On the Displacement of the Beirut-Cairo-Bagdad Axis of Reading, Writing, and Publishing

By Essayed Taha

Nadine Chehade is the vice-president of Beyt El Kottab (, a Beirut-based non-profit that organizes public meetings with writers and short-term residencies aimed at discussing contemporary topics through literature. The organization has published several books since its inception in 2012.

Chehade is also a development professional and financial sector specialist. She holds degrees in business administration and literature.

In response to the first question, about the challenges she faced and how she adapted, Chehade wrote:

“In large part, the local and regional publishing industry continues to be dominated by family businesses. This makes evidence-based trends analysis quite complex as it is nearly impossible to garner enough data. At a high level, the Arab world hosts close to 500 million people, 6% of the global population. Given that the total publishing industry revenues are worth over US$ 70 billion as per the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), simple math should put the region at around US$ 4.5 billion, on par with countries like Japan or Italy. Guesstimates of regional publishing revenues however range from a low US$ 150 million to a high US$ 1 billion, in all cases far below potential. While poor reading habits are often blamed, with an anecdote going about people reading a maximum of two pages a year in the region, book fairs are very popular and attract millions of visitors, similarly to free books posted (or pirated) online. Taking a closer look, deeper issues emerge, most notably a fragmented industry, an impoverished majority who has limited funds to purchase paper books, the collapse of readership in Syria and Iraq, two countries with great literary history, the domination of a single-book religious culture, and educational systems that do not encourage critical thinking.  

“Lebanon has followed its own tragic trajectory since the economic and financial crisis began. Bookstores are starting to slowly recover but now focus exclusively on Beirut as people prioritize basic needs everywhere else, mirroring the middle-class extinction. Even prior to the crisis though, Lebanon’s readership was not so different from its regional peers, except for its francophone population that counted a higher proportion of active readers despite being relatively very small in numbers.

“Our own experience at Beyt El Kottab, the International Writer’s House in Beirut, shows that writers-in-residence books sell much better in French or English as compared to Arabic. Despite our best efforts and those of our partners in publishing and bookselling, sales of the Arabic books of our invited writers never exceeded a couple of hundreds. We are nonetheless constantly looking at ways to entice readership, for example by organizing meetings with authors in schools and universities across the country, mixing literature with other disciplines (e.g. theater, architecture), organizing walking literary tours, and exploring new modes of distribution (e.g. digital, voice, gamification). 

“Over time, it has become clear that the infamous Beirut-Cairo-Bagdad axis for writing-publishing-reading has been displaced from Mashreq to the Gulf countries. With deeper pockets, deliberate publishing policies, and excellent editing work, Emiratis and Saudis tend to sell more books and to produce higher-quality ones. Production is however concentrated on children’s books. Young adults’ literature, which is critical to anchor reading habits, remains barely nascent. We have witnessed all those changes first-hand at Beyt El Kottab, struggling locally while being regularly asked to advise on literature-related public policy in the Gulf.”

As for the second question about what brings her happiness, Chehade responded:

“My passion for literature stems from the very intimate relation one has with books and the related sense of freedom it provides. It is a unique relationship where there is no censorship, no constraints, no right or wrong, no rush, just the freedom of discovering new horizons and confronting opposing views. I find the exercise of this individual freedom extremely appealing, especially as it is non-violent while being potentially transformational.

“Of course, with such freedom of thinking and of feeling comes the liberty of dropping a book that one dislikes! My own reading experience and the importance it has had in shaping my vision of the world drives my efforts to bring literature to as many people as possible, though it sometimes feels like an uphill battle. Like several members of Beyt El Kottab, I also think that Beirut intimately condenses the world’s most prominent contemporary issues, and always find it fascinating to discuss with our guest writers global challenges that echo our own daily problems. Last, I have to say I am also proud to export Beirut’s name and its multiple facets by increasing its global literary footprint.”

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