This post is also available in: العربية
Tunis, Shawqi bin Hassan,
There are some political events that seem like black holes from which nothing can escape. They receive the majority of media exposure and coverage for a considerable period of time, sometimes to the extent that anything else that happens attracts little attention. A classic example of this is large-scale events such as wars, revolutions, coups d’état and terrorist operations.
Over many years, the Arab world has been through severe turbulence and turmoil, including the relatively recent civil unrest in Tunisia in 2011 and the riots that followed in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and of course the ongoing violence that is taking place in Syria and Iraq with ISIS. As terrorists struck non-Arab countries, a number of western books in subjects such as social and political studies were taken up, as well as fictional works which captured the scenario, the situation and imagination of the reader.
However, the publishing world is governed by many factors, including the degree of freedom, the subject matter, the objectivity of the authors, political sentiments and the global context in which such events happen.
Settling of Scores in the Printing House:
The year 2011 was a special year in Tunisia, and the publishing industry flourished in a way that had never been seen before, especially with the fall of so many restrictions such as copyrights, printing and distribution, but what did this transition reflect?
‘Sanawat Al Prostata’ published by Arabia Publishing, came into the limelight a few days after former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali left power. Written by author and journalist Al Safi Saeed, the novel found freedom with the revolution, particularly because it had included the biography of the second president of Tunisia and addressed the details of his personal affairs as well as little-known insights into life at the presidential palace.
The novel, ‘Burj Al Rumi’ published by Krem Sharif Editions, was also catapulted into the public spotlight. Written by Samir Sassi, the book threw open the door of ‘prison literature’ and addressed torture by the secret police. It became an icon in the genre and its style and substance rapidly spread into Egypt, Syria and Libya.
Other significant moments were the republishing of ‘Notre Amis Ben Ali’ by Nicolas Beau and Jean-Pierre Tuquoi, and ‘La Régente de Carthage’ by Nicolas Beau and Catherine Graciet. Both books were translated into Arabic and became bestsellers, thanks in part because the two titles, which were popular on social media networking sites, were banned in Tunisia under the Presidency of Ben Ali.
Statistics from the Bibliothèque Nationale de Tunisie (National Library of Tunisia) indicate that 103 books on revolution were published in 2011. This seems to suggest that there was a ‘settling of scores’’ with the past through exposing the practices of Ben Ali and what was happening behind the scenes in politics under his presidency.
Swirls of Political Events:
As far as publishing is concerned, we can draw conclusions from the Egyptian and Libyan versions of events in Tunisia, while bearing in mind the differences and characteristics of each of the book markets. We can also examine the way publishers covered political events in Egypt in 2013, when the military wrested power from the Muslim Brotherhood Group, and removed Mohamed Morsi – who was elected president in 2012 – from office.
The years 2012 and 2013 were contradictory in terms of publishing in Egypt. In 2012, pro-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda prevailed, and the next year, anti-Muslim Brotherhood propaganda was dominant. These two years also saw less interest in addressing the ‘Revolution of 25 January’ and Tahrir Square events, which were landmarks in Egyptian culture.
In July 2013, many titles were published such as Abdul Adhim Hammad’s ‘The Lost Revolution: The Struggle between Helmet, Beard and Square’, published by AL Mahrosa Centre, Yasser Thabit’s ‘The President of Lost Opportunities: Morsi between Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood’, published by Dar Oktob and Sameh Fayez’s ‘The Paradise of Muslim Brotherhood: Departing the Group’. These books illustrate the dominance of testimonies, analysis and political approaches in the books chosen by Egyptian publishers.
This period also saw a wave of publications by Youssef Ziedan. It seemed that the struggle between the government institutions and the terrorist movement were a timely opportunity for him; three titles by Ziedan were printed in 2013, namely; ‘Swirls of Religiosity’, ‘Labyrinths of Illusion’ and ‘The Jurisprudence of Revolution’.
The Syrian Diaspora:
Tastes, interests and contemporary popularity have not swayed as much in other markets as much as they have in Tunisia and Egypt, where material waned as events passed.
It is important to note that the Syrian publishing industry does not exist anymore. All books are published through other countries, mainly Lebanon and Egypt, however there are also many GCC and European publishing houses which have a committed interest in Syrian authors and the Syrian crisis in general.
Syrian changes were reflected in many novels and sub-genres, such as the ‘testimonial novel’, ‘media novel’ and ‘secret police novel’. We have titles including ‘Syrian Enemies’ written by Fawaz Haddad, ‘The Bewitched’ by Rosa Yasin Hassan, ‘The Season of the Falling Butterflies’ by Atab Ahmed Shbeeb, ‘Testing the Regret’ by Khalil Sowaileh, and ‘Death Is Hard Work’ by Khalid Khalifa.
This publishing tangent, aligned with the Syrian crisis, is not restricted to the Arab world. Much light was shed on Syrian authors in the European countries where they settled, such as Rafiq Shami, and Yassin Al Haj Saleh in Germany. The crisis was also addressed by French writers including Nathalie Bontemps in her work ‘Gens de Damas’ and we must not forget that Tadmor has become a European tragedy addressed by many historians, novelists and poets.
The ISIS Moment:
The Syrian conflict was seen as a self-sustained narrative, and produced another publishing trend represented by the ISIS phenomenon. This provided an organised approach under the umbrella of official policies to raise awareness and fight the terrorists, and at the same time cater to the demands of readers.
Key books written about ISIS include ‘The Caliphate of ISIS’ by Haitham Mannaa, ‘ISIS, Where to?’, ‘The Post-AL Qaeda Jihadists’ by Fouad Jirjis, ‘ISIS – The Knife that Slaughters Islam’ by Ibrahim Najeh, ‘The Deconstruction of ISIS’ by Modar Al Hammeed, ‘The Full Story of Al Qaeda the Khawarij of Our Time: ISIS and Its Sisters’ by Ibrahim bin Saleh Al Mohaimeed, ‘The Islamic State: The Roots, Brutality and Future’ by Abdul Bari Atwan, and ‘In the Path of Harm: from AL Qaeda Bastions to ISIS Incubators’ by Egyptian journalist Yosri Fouda.
We can see how political events impact the book industry, and how creativity can be hijacked to pressure publishers into aligning with a certain event. This approach can be observed through ‘I was in Raqqa’, a bestselling novel by Tunisian journalist Hadi Yahmed, which includes statements from a former ISIS member.
These political events can often be perceived as the driving force behind the Middle East’s publishing industry – does the sector really profit from this pragmatic approach, or will it ultimately create a void that will hinder progress and a return to normality in the future?
If we examine a list of books written in conjunction with a specific event, there is still a demand for the relevant material for some time afterwards. The publisher has a responsibility to what he is offering the readers in terms of credibility, ethics, integrity and honesty.