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A large sign reading “Beirut will not break” greeted bibliophiles as they entered Beirut’s Seaside Arena for the city’s 63rd International Bookfair.
After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Arab Cultural Club’s book fair returned for a special 10-day run from March 3rd to March 13th. This is the first of two rounds, with the second set for the first week of December, the fair’s original annual date.
The expo took place in the midst of a severe economic crisis in Lebanon, where the lira has lost more than 90% of its value and inflation rates are among the world’s highest. Adnan Hammoud, the fair’s director, spoke to Fanack about the difficulties that had to be overcome in order to make for a successful comeback.
The destruction of the fair’s original display area in the August 4 explosion in 2020 was a major barrier for organizers. This prompted them to downsize, reducing their capacity to accommodate publishing houses by more than half, from 10,000 square meters to 4,000 square meters in size, and from about 200 to barely 90 publishers in numbers.
“To ensure that everyone had an opportunity, I had to host the biggest number of publishers in a smaller than usual space. As a result, I had to offer everyone half of the space they originally asked for,” Hammoud told Fanack.
Several local publishing houses also declined to participate, preferring to focus on international agreements with other book fairs in order to generate more revenue in foreign currency, according to Hammoud. As a result, visitors expressed dissatisfaction with the lack of diversity in the books available, pointing in particular to Iranian merchandise, which some regarded as overbearing and intrusive. This generated a social media debate and, later, a physical altercation between pro-Iran supporters and anti-Iran protestors.
According to Hammoud, the lack of variety was caused by some publishers preferring the fair’s initial schedule and thus delaying their participation until December.
“This month, our goal is to revitalize Beirut’s cultural life and demonstrate the city’s genuine resilience to everyone. Why should the cultural life in this city die? It’s a city that will never die, so why should culture come to a halt?” he stated.
A brief history
The International Beirut Bookfair started in 1956 with only ten publishing houses. Hammoud explained that the expansion was gradual, as more regional houses joined over time. The fair relocated to the Unesco Palace in 1970, before settling in the tourism ministry for a ten year period.
After that, it was relocated to downtown Beirut where participants’ number rose to up to ninety.
“We eventually had to leave because plans to rebuild the capital following the end of the civil war in the early 90s had commenced,” Hammoud said.
The fair eventually moved in 2003 to the now-destroyed exhibition center by Beirut’s seaside, where it remained until the start of the pandemic.
While the fair is usually a collaborative effort between the Union of Publishers and the Arab Cultural Club, Hammoud said the Union refrained from joining this year.
The Cultural Club, however, insisted on organizing an early round, and moved the fair into a new center that was constructed in just 15 days, the director explained.
“This was a challenge for Beirut and its people. The book fair has survived wars and invasions and has never been shut down. Why should we allow our current situation to prevent us from carrying on with our cultural legacy?” he said.
Quenching the thirst of book lovers
Ali Hammoud, an employee at renowned publishing house Zamakan, told Fanack that their sales exceeded their expectations. While books are generally on sale during the fair, Hammoud said they wanted to go above and beyond to ensure that money was not an issue for clients.
“We have an offer of 4 books for 100,000 Lebanese lira (approx. $4 on the black market exchange rate). Our goal is to encourage people to return to reading without worrying about money,” he said.
Similarly, several publishing houses and libraries offered second-hand books and new ones at affordable prices. The opening weekend drew a larger crowd than originally anticipated, and despite the economic crisis, the profits were considerably high.
Banan Publishing, which primarily publishes children’s books, told Fanack that its clients appeared to be “thirsty for books.” Children as young as five years old were seen buying up to three books at a time. Despite the fact that sales aren’t what they used to be, the publishing house said it was a “joy seeing children excited at a book fair.”
But the book fair was not without controversy.
A clash of cultures
On Monday, March 7, videos emerged on social media of a young man named Shafik Bader entering the book fair and walking over to the Al Mawadda Publishing House stand, where he began punching a large poster of Iran’s former military officer, Qasem Soleimani, while chanting: “Beirut is free, free! Iran out, out!”
This led to an altercation between Bader and the employees at Al Mawadda. According to witnesses who spoke to Fanack on condition of anonymity, he was subsequently joined by a multitude of activists who protested outside the book fair, demanding that Beirut be “liberated from the Iranian invasion.”
The book fair was forced to shut down its doors for an hour until calm was restored. The bout drew mixed reactions. Former MP Michel Moawad and prominent Lebanese singer Elissa, for example, sided with Bader and joined the anti-Iranian camp.
“Displaying the poster of Qasem Soleimani demonstrates that Beirut is in trouble and that certain people are attempting to impose a culture that does not resemble the country,” Moawad explained.
“Go hang [his] portrait in Iran or inside your houses; your culture wrecked Beirut’s history and civilization,” Elissa said via Twitter.
Hasan Fneich, an Al Mawadda art consultant, told Fanack that he believed the fight was staged and Bader was compensated for his actions.
Regarding the poster, Fneich noted that it was intended to promote Soleimani-related merchandise because “he is the most important character to discuss at the moment, given his position and assassisation.”
“We have always sold products associated with the Iranian political axis, and this year was no exception. Furthermore, no one has the authority to take away our right to freely express ourselves,” he said.
The art consultant went on to explain that the repeated allegations of being “Iranian” and not “Lebanese” when referring to their work and personal beliefs makes them feel both alienated and disenfranchised.
“We have many French and English speakers in the country who like American and French cultures, but we still refer to them as Lebanese, and no one talks about an American or French invasion,” Fneich explained.
As far as visitors’ reactions go, Jad (whose name has been changed), 28, told Fanack that despite his rejection to the ideologies of the pro-Iran axis, he blames the lack of diversity on publishing houses that failed to participate in this year’s event.
“This all could have been averted had there been more diversity,” he said.