March 25, 2006

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 (Jordan has the only available data), people spend less on books than on kitchen matches. And that’s not out of environmental concern. People have little use for an Arabic book that remains –in 98.4% of the case- narcissistically boastful, intellectually anemic, and syntactically convoluted and anti-layman(woman).

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 Lebanon. A sure sign of a Shia crescent conspiracy, if not of a second coming. The timing is less than perfect as the local faithful are increasingly strapped for cash, but the gaps is more than leveled by faith-starved crowds from Qatif & Ihsaa, with some appearing to have died on the causeway and resurrected into a faith-filled heaven.

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 Cairo collection chronicling the island “over a century” at a very special rate.

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.


At 2:06 PM, Anonymous Chanad said...

nice one.

the lack of books and libraries here is one thing that i really dislike about being in bahrain.

so do you know anything about the huge new library being built next to al fateh mosque?? where are they going to find so many non-banned books to fill up all that space?

At 6:53 PM, Anonymous Mahmood Al-Yousif said...

Chan'ad, have you not heard of the "just in time" printing? How about larger font sizes, to aid those with weak eye-sight of course.

At 11:20 PM, Blogger MR said...

It's a safe bet it'll be much like its neighbour, the grand mosque, huge enough to be a touristy showcase on the outside, and desolately hollow on the inside. Public good, least of all intellectual good, is just not in the genes.

I absolutely second yours on the drought of books and libraries here. And the net is definitely not a substitute. I once thought what would be the most cost effective option to travel to a decent library with a good new acquistion policy available within few hundreds km radius, where one can spend a couple of days at the bookshelves. I haven't find an ideal answer yet.

At 12:26 AM, Anonymous chanad said...

hey mr, do you have an email addy i can write you on? or could you drop me a line at chanad-at-gmail-dot-com .


At 3:50 PM, Blogger MR said...

manama underscore republic at fastmail dot fm

At 10:27 AM, Blogger Abdulhadi Khalaf said...

As usual, amazing and informative post. I felt I was there at the book fair moving from a stand to another. I am turning green with envy ;) (Once again, my apologies to SBG! for this * ).

For another colour please note that the Machboos lover's cheeks are turning puple red.



At 11:56 PM, Blogger MR said...

As usual, it's an honour to have you drop by, AbuRasool.

Also at the fair, the locally owned Dar Al-Kunooz Al-Adabiya made its official debut with an unusually higher tolerance. But some of their more popular and out of line offering remained out of sight. Dar al-Talee3a seems still resting on its laurels with only a couble of new but less than memorable titles. Al-Saqi carried several new interesting ones but out of affordability line. Also, an inordinate amount of law textbooks were on display by our Egyptian friends. As if it at all matters.

And yes, she is destrucktively contagious. Ever since her adding a word to the annals of politicks, I feel lexickally challenged enough to doubt a mis-spell and subtrackt a k everytime i resort to use a non demockratic word.

At 5:15 PM, Blogger SillyBahrainiGirl said...


Thanks MR for the virtual tour... I know I would have felt the same walking down the isle!!

Nevertheless, I would have left the fair a few hundred dinars poorer..with books still gathering dust back home!

The Lebanese stands in the 'Shia quarter' in particular knew me by my first name and always had a few books hidden behind the counters (just for my curious eyes)!

I hope no one from the Misinformation Ministry is reading this for I really don't want to get anyone in trouble.. nor do I want the Goons to raid my house at the break of dawn.

The books in question.. I repeat .. have since been read and burned (LOL) and only an autopsy will reveal their contents!


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