The decline of the cultural scene in Damascus… Reputable libraries and publishing houses struggle to keep their doors open

In recent years, the pace of book closures and the reduction of well-known publishing houses for their production and the number of their employees have accelerated, after the Arab library has been enriched with books and translations.

In Damascus, which has always been a meeting place for intellectuals, well-established publishing houses are struggling to keep their doors open, after several bookshops that printed the cultural scene were forced to close and some of them turned into shops selling clothes or food.

“We bear the name of the oldest library in Syria and we wanted it to remain for our children and grandchildren, but the situation of reading and culture has greatly declined,” said Muhammad Salem al-Nouri, 71, the son of Hussein al-Nouri, founder of one of the oldest libraries in Damascus.

The Nouri family currently runs two bookshops in Damascus, one of which was founded in 1930. In the library on Bareed Street, Nouri oversees the timid sales. He expresses his fear that “Al-Nouri’s library is threatened with closure, and the same applies to the rest of the libraries,” because “people cannot afford the expenses of reading, and libraries cannot cover their expenses.”

Three years ago, the family was forced to close a library they had established in Damascus in 2000, which was called “The World of Knowledge”. Its doors are closed, but the books inside are still intact, dusty and filling the shelves. On a wooden desk, the Al-Nouri family keeps old photos of family members and the most prominent visitors to the library, including politicians, artists and poets.

The decision came after she was exhausted by the years of war in Syria since 2011, and she was no longer able to “afford her financial expenses,” according to Al-Nuri.

In recent years, the pace of book closures and the reduction of well-known publishing houses for their production and the number of their employees have accelerated, after the Arabic library has been enriched with books and translations.

Nobel, Maysaloon, and the Arab Awakening

Last month, the prestigious Nobel Library bid farewell to the cultural scene, to follow in the footsteps of the Arab Awakening Library, which was established in 1939 and opened in its place, a shoe store, and Maysaloun Library, which became a money exchange center, and other libraries that have successively disappeared.

In addition to the economic reasons, Sami Hamdan, 40, who is from the third generation to run the Arab Awakening House and Library, points out that “technology has pushed entire generations towards electronic books, and kept them away from the paper book.”

When it closed in 2014, Dar Al-Waqdah had printed more than 300 books and had to liquidate tens of thousands of copies.

According to Hamdan, “the war destroyed what was left” of a cultural scene that had already begun to retreat, he said. “We were not immune to the global shift towards digitization, but during the war, no one wanted to invest their money in a library,” he explains.

An employee reviews a book in the Al-Nouri Library, which was established in 1930 and is threatened with closure in the Syrian capital, Damascus (French)

“luxury and luxury”

A decade of war has pushed nearly 90% of Syrians below the poverty line. These people are now struggling to secure their daily strength and basic needs amid a stifling economic crisis, a shortage of raw materials, and the deterioration of the value of the local currency against the dollar, which negatively affected all productive sectors, including printing.

Khalil Haddad, 70, one of the custodians of Dar Osama Publishing and Distribution, which was founded in 1967 and struggles to keep its doors open, believes that “it is a luxury and a luxury to invite people to buy books in these circumstances, and people’s priorities focus on food and housing.”

The man who has spent his life among books and libraries keeps coming to his workplace, even though there are days when “we don’t sell a single book.”

He explains how “the high prices, the high costs of paper and printing, and logistical difficulties such as electricity cuts, led to the high price of the book and the reluctance of readers to buy.”

Six years ago, the famous Dar Damascus library, founded in 1954, was transformed into a stationery store, in an attempt to preserve it. However, on its old wooden door, Amer Tanbakji, the son of the founder of the house today, hangs a sign “Pasting the Delivery”, to announce this near the end of a journey that lasted nearly 70 years.

“We are in the process of selling it if there is a willing person,” explains Tanbakji, 39, although “I feel sad if it turns into anything else.”

Like other publishing houses, the house’s ability to print and import books from abroad has gradually declined due to the collapse of the Syrian pound and the obstacles created by the economic sanctions on Syria.

The Syrian capital, Damascus, has lost many of its libraries in recent years (French)

“Precious Books”

After about 800 publications entered Syria daily before the start of the war, the number of publications currently does not exceed five, according to Ziad Ghosn, the former director of the official Al-Wehda Foundation for Press, Printing, Publishing and Distribution in Syria.

Ghosn estimates that the cost of paper and printing has increased by at least 500% during the past two years, in addition to an increase in transportation and labor wages by more than 100%.

The Corona pandemic deprived the Syrians of the pleasure of reading daily paper newspapers, according to a decision issued by the Ministry of Information in March 2020, which is still in effect until now.

From a large library on a main street in Damascus to a small basement, Atlas publisher Samar Haddad transferred years ago the legacy of her father, Simon Haddad, who founded the house in 1955 and used to display “the precious books, the latest publications and translations.”

With only one part-time employee, Samar Haddad is trying to push the wheel of book printing, albeit with difficulty, to maintain the pace of publishing 7 books annually instead of more than 25 at least before the war.

She explains, “What we have noticed in the war years is that we lost a large part of our readers. Many of them traveled.”

However, what drives her to keep working is to preserve her father’s legacy. “We are desperate to survive,” she says in a decisive tone. “I will not close the Atlas House library.”

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