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By Shawqi bin Hassan

In order to explore the rich and diverse history of North African countries, librarians and historians have traditionally been the most reliable source of information and knowledge, giving a deeper insight into the region’s heritage. Thanks to Dar Al Gharb Al Islami Publishing House this has been possible, despite constant struggles and danger in the face of adversity.

The publisher’s books have provided the opportunity to explore the history of the Aghlabid Dynasty, the Hafsid Dynasty, Almohad Caliphate and the Taifa in Al Andalus, as well as a large number of books written by senior scholars of the Maliki Fiqh School in the libraries of Ez-Zitouna Mosque in Tunis, and Al Quaraouiyine Mosque in Fez, Morocco.

As far as more modern times are concerned, the publisher has produced material on the leaders of the struggle against the French, such as the Tunisian Abdelaziz Thâalbi and the Moroccan Allal Al Fassi.

These works were produced due to the ever conscientious Tunisian publisher Al Habib Al Lamsi, also known as the Sheikh of Tunisian publishers, who died in May this year aged 87. Al-Lamsi spent most of his life working for Dar Al Gharb Al Islami shuttling between Beirut and Tunis.

Dar Al Gharb Al Islami is the culmination of a long-awaited and highly sought-after project launched by the Maghreb politicians at the very beginning of the struggle for independence against the French occupation of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. While the goal was commendable, Al Lamsi did not believe the politicians had the qualifications or backgrounds to reflect the history accurately and so he worked endlessly to help the people of the region understand and appreciate their mutual history and heritage.

The fame of Dar al Gharb al Islami spread far and wide due to its remarkable legacy, encouraging historians such as Mohammed Al Talibi, author of ‘The Aghlabid Dynasty’ and Habib Al Janhani, author of ‘Studies on the Economic and Social History of the Islamic Maghreb’, to document the history of Islam in the Arab Maghreb. The publisher also translated the most important works telling the history of the region, such as ‘The History of Africa under the Hafsid Dynasty’ by Robert Brunschwig, and Arab theses discussed in the French Universities, including ‘The Sanhaja Dynasty’ by Hady Roger Idris, and ‘The Fatimid Caliphate of Morocco’ by Farhat Al Dashrawy.

All these works were translated into Arabic by the late Tunisian Historian Hammadi Al Sahli, and are so consistent that they form an integrated encyclopedia of the Islamic history of North Africa

As well as its value as a historical document, Dar Al Gharb Al-Islami was always intended to be a source of knowledge, linking the two sides of Islamic civilisation together. This is believed to be behind Al Lamsi’s strategic choice to found his publishing house in Beirut, although other contributing factors are thought to include the limited Tunisian book market and the Tunisian authorities’ intolerance towards such a project and such an ambitious publisher.

Another reason for their prejudice was that Al Lamsi, like many young Tunisians, was a member of the Palestinian resistance who volunteered to fight the Zionist project in occupied Palestine from Lebanon.

For many years, Dar Al Gharb Al Islami’s books were smuggled into Tunisia through suitcases or were already in libraries, which risked being raided by the police to stem the criticism of the Tunisian regime – especially under the rule of President Habib Bourguiba, who was known for his strong support of the West at the expense of his own people.

Dar Al Gharb Al Islami also opened the door to writing the history of modern Tunisia through the publication of the ‘Free Constitutional Party’ book by Yousuf Manasriya, and republishing the works of Abdelaziz Thâalbi, whose role during the years of independence had been blocked by Bourguiba.

Throughout his career in Dar Al Gharb Ala Islami, Al Habib Al Lamsi published approximately 500 books, mainly covering history, but also some on language, poetry and religious sciences, devoting part of his publications to reviewing heritage books, mostly Andalusian.