Whitaker on Arab publishing

Don't miss this great article by Brian Whitaker, the Middle East editor of the Guardian, where he looks at the often-repeated claims that the Arab world is trailing far behind the rest of the world in knowledge production. Spurious statistics have been used over the past three years by people running from President Bush to Thomas Friedman as if to explain a fundamental problem with the Arab world and Arab literature. Whitaker's article looks at some of these stats and finds they're junk, and tries to take a little more intelligent approach for why there are less books translated into Arabic than into Spanish, which may have to do with things like income disparity and illiteracy.

Arab books became a political issue earlier this year when the Bush administration launched its "greater Middle East initiative" and blamed low output of books for a "knowledge deficit" in the Arab countries. ("Knowledge", in this context, is defined in western terms and automatically excludes such things as memorising the Qur'an or knowing how to milk a goat.)



"The Greater Middle East region, once the cradle of scientific discovery and learning, has largely failed to keep up with today's knowledge-oriented world," the US said in a working paper for the G8 summit. "Arab countries' output of books represents just 1.1% of the world total."



The working paper did not see fit to mention that this figure, which has been much quoted subsequently, is 13 years out of date and almost certainly wrong. It was plucked from an old Unesco report relating to book production in 1991 - probably an untypical year for publishing in the Arab world (and certainly for Iraq and Kuwait) because of the Gulf war.



There is more of that kind of stuff in the article, but I thought his point on the economics of publishing to be even more important, particularly in those countries where a book sold at Western prices would be prohibitive even for the middle class.



While it may be generally true, as the Arab human development report suggests, that creative activity needs "a climate of freedom and cultural pluralism" in order to flourish, this is not by any means the whole story. There are many far more mundane problems that hamper book publishing, too. "For Arabs, buying a book is like buying perfume," said Andre Gaspard, co-founder of Saqi Books, which publishes in both Arabic and English. "A book is a luxury in Lebanon, Syria, Morocco and Egypt."



Book buying also seems to be declining among the young. A bookseller quoted by the Lebanese Daily Star newspaper last week said most of his customers were in the 30 and above age category. "Among those, there is only an elite who would pay a large amount of money to buy a book," he said. "People here would much rather prefer spending such an amount on an outing or a new outfit."



Another bookseller in Beirut suggested high prices drive people to photocopy books rather than buying them. "Lebanese university students never buy books because they can't afford them," he said. A non-fiction book written in English that sells for $20 or £12.99 in the west can be sold in translation in the Middle East for no more than $8, Mr Gaspard said. If the price is higher, people simply won't buy it. This means it is less likely to be an economic proposition for publishers. The paper and printing costs for English and Arabic editions are virtually the same but the Arabic edition, besides having to be sold at a lower price, carries the extra burden of translation costs at around $14 per page.



Some Arab publishers use cheaper production methods but this can result in books that drop to bits or need to have their pages slit apart with a knife. People don't trust badly-produced books, Mr Gaspard said. Some also cut corners by paying their translators as little as possible - not a good policy if the result is gibberish. Mr Gaspard recalls once attending a dinner party where a guest sat scribbling between courses, hurriedly finishing off his Arabic translation of a book on structuralism.



In Egypt for instance, the government-owned and some private publishing companies print low-quality editions of quality books that sell like hot cakes, even though they are often badly edited and badly produced. They are typically sold for about $1-2, compared with $12 minimum for a cheap book you would buy at Amazon. Imported books in the Arab world are particularly expensive when taking into account import fees and custom duties.



A big part of the problem in the arts isn't a lack of talent, but rather than in elsewhere in life here you don't get far without contacts, particularly in the formerly state socialist countries like Egypt where "state intellectuals" monopolize columns and book deals -- take for instance the sycophantic editor of Egypt's government-owned Al Gomhouriyya daily, who regularly is awarded the best book of the year awards for his moronic (and most likely ghost-written) praises of Mubarak. Clearly there are problems with cultural production in the Arab world, but they don't really have to do with civilizational decline a some other crisis than can be solved by "regime change."



Those who use the Arab Human Development Report to find backing for their own agenda should read it more carefully. It's a long book, but they could start with the four-page section on literature and publishing, which I am putting up here (PDF, 108kb).