As the world watches with shock the unfolding events in Kabul, the Afghanistan capital, the world of publishing and books seems almost an irrelevance. And yet if the country is to have a future and win the respect of other countries, education must be the key. Afghanistan’s young will have to be educated and the Taliban’s misunderstanding of Islam challenged. That will require books which in turn require publishers.
Among the many tragedies of the past week is that Afghanistan’s fall has coincided with a recovery of publishing in the country. According to the New York Times during the Taliban reign from 1996 to 2001 there were only two publishers: the state publisher and a private publishing company, Aazem Publishing, run by Dr Ajmal Aazem, a pediatrician from Kabul. By the end of 2001, there was only one bookstore in Kabul.
However, by 2018, there were 22 publishers and some 60 registered bookstores in Kabul alone. In 2010 Dr Aazem founded the Association of Afghan Publishers and became its first president. Many of the books in the country were pirated copies from neighbouring Pakistan, but there was also a growing, legitimate publishing industry and much discussion of the importance of copyright.
Dr Aazem told the newspaper that since 2017, many publishers had been expanding, opening up distribution centres across the country, and underwriting either their own bookstores or providing consignments to independent bookstores. “There was this huge pent-up demand from so many years without new books,” he said.
Now, with the Taliban take over, this growing industry is threatened. Many observers, particularly women, are fearful and pessimistic.
Sheikha Bodour al Qasimi, founder and CEO of Kalimat Publishing Group in Sharjah in the UAE and President of the International Publishers Association, is passionate about the importance of books to children. In 2012 Sheikha Bodour decided to try to bridge the education and literacy funding gap in war-affected countries by launching a fund through a partnership between the Government of Sharjah and the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). The $10m Sharjah/IBBY Fund for Children in Crisis provides grants for projects in Central Asia and North Africa to benefit children whose lives have been disrupted by war, civil disorder, or natural disaster. One of the fund’s beneficiaries to date has been Afghanistan.
All eyes are now watching the country to see which way it will turn. Those in the publishing industry hope that books may provide light in the gathering darkness.