In Syria, the craft of publishing and selling books has declined over the past decade. People have focused on securing daily essentials amidst high prices, currency depreciation, economic crises, and declining interest in cultural products, in favor of other necessities.
In recent years, the closure of libraries has accelerated, while several renowned publishing houses have reduced both production and staff rosters where once Arab literature and translations thrived.
Closing publishing houses
Mohammed Salem al-Nouri, 71 years old, said: “We hold the title of oldest publishing house in Syria, and we wanted it to continue for our children and grandchildren. However, the importance of reading and culture has declined greatly.”
Mohammed is the son of Hussein al-Nouri, the founder of one of Syria and Damascus’ oldest publishing houses. The family currently operates two publishing houses in Damascus, one of which was founded in 1930.
In the publishing house on al-Bareed Street, Nouri completes only tepid sales, and is afraid that “the al-Nouri Publishing House is threatened with closure, along with the other publishing houses,” because “people cannot afford to read and publishing houses cannot afford books.”
“Technology has pushed entire generations towards e-books, keeping them away from paper books,” said Sami Hamdan, 40 years old. Hamdan is a third-generation writer who has been punished for running another publishing house, the Dar al-Waqdah publishing house.
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At the time of its closure in 2014, Dar al-Waqdah publishing house had printed more than 300 books. It was forced to liquidate tens of thousands of volumes.
Hamdan said that the “war has destroyed what is left” of a cultural scene that had already started to decline. Hamdan added that “we were not immune to the global shift towards digitalization but, during the war, no one wanted to invest their money in a publishing house.”
Culture as luxury
The war sparked by the Al-Assad regime in Syria a decade ago created major economic crises, forcing the majority of Syrians below the poverty line. Now they are struggling to secure their daily sustenance and basic needs amidst declining purchasing power, a scarcity of raw materials, and the local currency’s depreciation against the U.S. dollar. These factors have negatively impacted all productive sectors, including printing and publishing.
“It is a huge luxury to ask people to buy books in these circumstances when people’s priorities are food and housing,” said Khalil Haddad, 70 years old. Haddad is a curator of the 1967 Osama Publishing and Distribution House, which struggles to keep its doors open.
Haddad, a man who has spent his life shuffling between books and publishing houses, keeps coming to his place of work. He says, however, that there are days when “we don’t sell a single book.”
“High prices, especially paper and printing costs, and logistical difficulties such as power outages have driven up book prices and made readers more reluctant to buy them,” Haddad explains.
The famous Dar Damascus publishing house (founded in 1954) was transformed six years ago into a stationery store, in an attempt to keep it alive. But on its old wooden door, Amer Tanbakji, son of the founder of the stores, today hangs a sign “For Sale”, announcing the end of a dynasty that lasted about 70 years.
“We are going to sell the shop if the buyer is available,” Tanbakji, 39 years old, told Syria TV. He added, however: “I will feel sad if they turn it into anything else.”
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.