Monday, September 04, 2006

It goes without saying that the death and destruction of the people of Lebanon is of primary concern, but I am perturbed to note the bombing of the Saqi warehouse in Beirut. For those unfamiliar with Saqi Books, they are a bookshop on Westbourne Grove (near my old London stomping grounds) focussing on the Middle East. In recent years they started their own publishing company to complement the bookshop. Having run a specialist African bookshop I can tell you that this all makes perfect sense in the context of chain bookstores in the west unwilling to stock backlist titles on anything other than bestsellers, and particularly not about parts of the world deemed unpopular. For people of other nationalities it is these specialist interest bookstores that become a home away from home where finding a "rare" or "difficult-to-acquire" book is guaranteed.

Below I have extracted a few pertinent paragraphs from an article by the award-winning author Kamila Shamsie summarizing the incident:
Among the books stored in the warehouse were Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women and Qissat: Short Stories by Palestinian Women, two collections due in London in August. Soon after the war started, someone from Dar al-Saqi (Saqi’s sister company in Beirut) sent six copies of each book to Jordan with a friend fleeing the country -- the 12 books later made their way to Paris, just in time for a planned window display. The rest of the books, or what remains of them, are still in the warehouse...

She concludes the article with a description of what Saqi is about:

Despite the paucity of distribution channels, many of Saqi’s authors -- and books -- rapidly became huge successes. At the heart of its ethos is an understanding of the need for two-way exchanges: Western books translated into Arabic, Arabic books translated into English, constant conversations between Beirut and London, titles which demand that readers from different parts of the globe reconsider their perceptions of their worlds and also that they look more deeply into received wisdom about other worlds.

It is an ethos that has enabled Saqi to build up a list of exceptional writers. In addition to its unparalleled list of literary luminaries from the Middle East, Saqi publishes acclaimed writers such as the Albanian winner of the first international Booker prize, Ismail Kadare, Argentine-born Alberto Manguel, British writer Maggie Gee, Aamer Hussein from Pakistan and Croatian novelist Dubravka Ugresic.

Among the most poignant of Saqi’s recent publications is Samir Khalaf’s Heart of Beirut: Reclaiming the Bourj. The Bourj is a public square in Beirut described as an “open museum of the world’s civilisations”. During the Lebanese civil war and in the Israeli air-strikes that followed, this vibrant, cosmopolitan space was reduced to a no-man’s land. As the Saqi catalogue explains, Khalaf’s book “argues passionately that its reinvention is at hand, and must be encouraged: the Bourj must reclaim its disinherited legacy of pluralism and tolerance’’. It is among the books in the bombed-out warehouse in Beirut.-- © Guardian Newspapers 2006.

For the full article on the Saqi warehouse bombing by Kamila Shamsie click here.
Kamila Shamsie is one of the contributors (along with one of my favourite authors, Paul Auster, and many illustrious others) to Lebanon, Lebanon, an anthology published this month with all proceeds going to Save the Children, Lebanon.

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