unfair jotting on a book fair
Another edition of the Arabic Book Fair has folded on yet another sad note of raised and failed expectations. Nothing to do with it being held in once sea-sided Karbabad mind you, as much as that déjà vu sense that the Arabic printed word still lives in a karbabad state of its own. Perhaps it’s only a logical mirror of the situation. If the question was: what sort of intellectual output can we expect under conditions of economic/political/ theological failure, the answer can be easily detected at your nearest Arabic book fair. In some countries (
There are certainly exceptions to this unfair rule, but to unearth the few glimpses from under the maze of the fair is momentously tough and spinally risky. The participating publishers do not even provide you with a basic list of their new/critically acclaimed books, no common website to search an author’s work, no book review sections of note in local/regional papers, so how one is supposed to know? Getting to the few and far between is like finding a needle in a stack of hay. The hay here is the usual fare at any fair: a curious mix of never-changing annotations on heaven’s holy word (and graphic depictions of the hereafter), loads of instruction manuals of ever-changing Microsoft Word (or other graphics applications), mounts of college textbooks serving no liberal education on the same desk with recipe cookbooks, liberally spiced.
But one need not despair. Apart from the intellectual economy of the traded word, a book fair is also an occasion with its unique sociological moments (not that one can analyze).
If you toured the fair right-handedly, your first stop –and no small surprise- would come at the spacious official Saudi booth. Centre stage is given to the works of no other than the late and incredible Abdul Rahman Munif. The very government that stripped him of his citizenship now reinstating him posthumously? Another pen triumphant over the sword? But please, if Cities of Salt jumped to mind, do not inconvenience a certain booth attendant. His full attending faculties are turned toward no salty booth just opposite, a cookbooks bookstore, manned (womanned?) and mostly visited by the sweetly peppered half.
As you move up, you’ll begin to hear the wafting of a top chart lamentation across the Shia East this season, Hussain Al-Akraf’ s able rendition of the masterful verse of Al-Sayed Al-Hindi:
صلت على جسد الحسين سيوفهم، فغدا لساجدة الظبا محرابا
How apt. a lamentful tune goes along way to describe the heaps around you. Besides, their swords had also prayed and preyed on the body-cultural, and their cutting blades took a worshipping spot at every other inked page. As you pass by the stand broadcasting it, a local bookstore that sells more CD’s and cassettes than books, you are reminded that the pen may be mightier than the sword but never the audio-visual.
As you pass by a publisher still at its resuscitation effort of the heritage (Ihyaa Al-Turath), one very young veiled girl is already giving up as she earnestly asks about the book of “Signs of Second Coming” at one of countless many Shia publishers from everywhere, but mainly from
The melodic lamentation begins to fade-out to a cacophony of played-up chanting emanating from a very surreal valley. Here you will find the 13 thousand (unlucky for the infidels) of fatwas by the illustrious Bin Baz – except the one declaring infidel he who believes the earth is round- on one round high fidelity CD. A chatty Egyptian exhibitor stops a visitor to sing the praise of a CD containing a library of a 1000 volumes starting -enchantingly enough- with the opus of Mohammed bin Abdul-Wahab – the religious not the musical summit- at mere BD2. Many sea tides have since passed, Karbabad.
At the left wing of the fair, you stumble upon a resourceful Egyptian publisher. On prime display are 6 oversized volumes with titles like “Economic Performance”, “Political Openness” in a series tagged “Under the Reign of HM”, enclosing nothing but newspaper clippings about the island. The collection is only BD120 for individuals, and if you were an institution, the house can sell you their
As you head toward the exit, a very recognizable face of the opposition is doing a survey at one Gulf research centre’s stand. No sooner does the amiable attendant finish receiving his fair share of questions, jumps a visitor with one more about a recent release co-edited by a luminary of former opposition. The attendant seems at genuine loss by the names of the pair of authors; one surly is a machboos-loving academic and the other a most likely enthusiast of pasta al’arrabbiata (with just as deliciously chewable name). Is the dish fat-skimmed enough to comply with the local authorities’ strict dietary guidelines? It was not a la carte.
As you leave the outside gate, a lorry full of brave anti-riot soldiers, blue-uniformed and desertly blue-eyed, enters the outside grounds of the fair, possibly for a refueling break en route to another heated face-off with unruly youths at the other entrance of the village. It’s farewell to books, and back to kitchen matches and tear gas, Karbabad.