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Arab publishing is in crisis, a crisis that is so ingrained there does not seem to be a way out.  That is the view of the celebrated Palestinian poet and writer Mourid Barghouti who made the comments in an uncompromising opening address to the International Publishers Association’s (IPA) first ever Middle East Seminar held in the Jordanian capital, Amman earlier this week (30 September).

“Our region is a crisis area,” he told publishers from across the Middle East and North Africa.  “Every aspect of our lives is touched by crisis…There is a crisis in freedom of movement and freedom of speech…Most alarming of all is the crisis of hegemonic foreign powers attempting to force us into total subordination.”

Talking about publishing specifically, he bemoaned the fact that “most Arab publishing houses appear to be unaware of the role of a literary editor” who hones a work for publication.  “Meanwhile, the few publishing houses that do recruit their own literary editors are usually shocked to find that Arab writers, unaccustomed to this tradition, refuse to cooperate with the editor.”

He talked about the echoes of colonialism, noting that “the curse of borders, artificially drawn by the old colonizers in the early twentieth century, still haunts the region, magnifying the suffering of its people”.  But he added that colonialism was not to blame “for the behaviour of publishing houses.  Instead, we can blame an endless list of self-inflicted failures, including the massive deterioration of our culture, the ever-dwindling role of the region’s intellectuals, and our constant harkening to the past.”

Yet he added a remaining curse of the old colonial hegemony is that “it is difficult for books to travel across borders made sacred by the colonial invention of nation states.  Books are treated much the same way as imported goods [and] as a result of these tight restrictions, an underground industry has flourished which is based on producing fraudulent, and almost always bade, copies of original books”.

Earlier, Hugo Setzer, president of the IPA, thanked Her Majesty, Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan for being the patron of the seminar and reaffirmed the importance of books. “Reading brings empowerment,” he said, “the ability to understand complex ideas and to challenge them.  To better ourselves.  The ability for society to progress, generation by generation.”