The 61st edition of the Beirut International Arab Book Fair Will it reflect the ‘winds of change’ in the region?
The 61st edition of the Beirut International Arab Book Fair kicked off on November 30, 2017 until December 13, 2017 at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure Center (BIEL) under the patronage of the Arab Cultural Club and in collaboration with the Union of Publishers in Lebanon.
Hundred and sixty Lebanese publishing houses, as well as 65 other Arab and foreign publishing houses took part in the fair. However, notably, many Gulf States were not represented in this year’s fair. A series of additional cultural events took place in parallel where Ukraine was the guest of honor this year, marking the 25th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between Beirut and Kiev.
Beirut has always been known to for its role in the publishing scene in the Arab world as it produces almost 30 percent of the books in the region, which is a significant percentage given the geographical size of the region. Additionally, Lebanon has become the outlet of many Syrian publishing houses, whether in terms of printing, distribution or even business given the ongoing war in Syria and the instability of the market there.
Beirut’s book fair is one of the longest running among its Arab counterparts, being established by an Arab Cultural Club committee in 1956. It usually takes place in several places, starting at the American University of Beirut (AUB), then moving to the UNESCO halls before exhibiting in BIEL. Most recently, other fairs have taken off, such as the International Sharjah Book Fair that offers a strong professional program for publishers. Yet many Lebanese and Syrian publishers noted the importance of keeping Beirut’s book fair alive, as it reflects the wind of change in the region as well as being an important meeting point between publishers and readers in Lebanon and its surrounding states.
This year, over 30 new titles were published for Arab authors, including Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat, Algerian novelist Waciny Laredj, and Palestinian writer Sahar Khalifeh. Books in translation also had their fair share in the exhibition.
Yet the turnout of younger audiences wasn’t strong, as most visitors were families and students visiting via school excursions. The reason behind the weak turnout could be explained by the lack of more interesting events organized in parallel with the fair. However, the exception was the reading and discussion events that targeted children and youth and that were organized by francophone schools and the Agency for French Education Abroad (AEFE). Other participants attributed the weak turnover to the location of the fair, which, they said, was relatively far from the city center and which organizers said they would take into consideration next year as they search for a more central and accessible venue.
On the other hand, publishers at the fair were mainly concerned with book piracy and protecting intellectual property of original and translated books. Despite publishers’ efforts to ensure their books and authors are protected, some pirated books were found at the fair. This negatively affects book prices and sales as well as the book market in general. Often, book piracy targets popular authors, such as Turkish novelist Elif Shafak and American author Dan Brown, as well as books that have won the Man Booker Prize as they are more expensive and in higher demand. Some Lebanese publishers have attempted to circumvent this by having shared editions with other non-Lebanese publishing houses, where a book would be published outside Lebanon in agreement with the original publishing house, making the book in question available at affordable prices in other countries. Electronic books can also provide a solution to many of these problems, mainly pricing, distribution and censorship; however, that option is still limited in the Arab world given the difficulties with online payment and the fact that Arab readers are not accustomed to e-reading.
Despite the fact that there was no German stand at the Beirut International Arab Book Fair this year, Goethe-Institut Libanon took part in the parallel event taking place. The institute organized an open meeting for Lebanese and Arab publishers in Beirut to introduce them to different grant programs made available by the Goethe-Institut and that focus on German-to-Arabic translations, such as the Translating German Books into a Foreign Language Program and the Litrix Project that are geared toward the Arab world from 2015 to 2018. Many publishers attended the event to get a better idea of the terms to apply for grants, where they discussed problems facing publishers when marketing books abroad given the issues of censorship and piracy.
Children’s books in translation were also discussed, which isn’t a new thing given the amount of children’s literature translated from French into Arabic. Some attendees voiced concerns regarding the issue, saying that many parents have reservations regarding translated children’s books because they could promote opposing values and traditions to what is locally accepted. Yet others argued that it is up to the parents to choose the books they see fit for their children, concluding that having both the original and translated books side by side would only enrich the content offered to young readers.