People of the Book (Burning)

September 12, 2006

In News

by Omayma Abdel-Latif

A little remarked consequence of Israel’s war on
Lebanon is the destruction of culture,
Omayma Abdel-Latif writes

The seller at the Lebanon Library, a bookshop in the
heart of Al-Hamra Street, Beirut, posed for a moment
before answering a question by a customer about a book
>entitled The Tragedy of Al-Zahraa, a seminal two-part
publication by Jawad Al-Amali. “You know, it will be
difficult to find since most of the bookshops in
Al-Dahiya district have been flattened by the Israeli
war,” she said. “But give me a couple of days to ask,
maybe we can find it for you.” Two days later, the
answer was a flat no. The reason: Dar Al-Mahjaa
Al-Baydaa, the print house that published the book,
was razed to the ground by heavy Israeli bombardment
of the southern parts of Beirut.

The bookshop is but one of many that faced the same
fate. Tens of bookshops have been the target of
Israel’s barbaric attacks on Beirut’s southern suburb.
The damage inflicted upon what many call here the
“cultural zone” of Al-Dahiya — as opposed to the
security zone which Israel claimed to be targeting —
is visible to Al-Dahiya visitors. Hundreds of books
could be seen scattered on the ground, some burnt,
some not. Some of the bookshops that were the jewel of
Al-Dahiya have completely disappeared turning into
grey ashes instead. “This was not just a military war,
it was a war against culture as well,” Iskander
Habash, cultural editor of daily As-Safir newspaper

Indeed, the publishing sector in Lebanon — among the
hardest hit by the war — has been the main source
that provided the Arab world with the latest
publications in all domains of knowledge. There are 35
publishing houses, 10 printing houses as well as tens
of bookshops that have disappeared as a result of the
Israeli bombardment. According to Mohamed Irani, head
of the Publishers’ Syndicate, Al-Dahiya used to
produce much of what Lebanon and the Arab world read.
“There is complete paralysis in the cultural scene
because the majority of those publishing houses and
bookshops have been damaged beyond repair. Some have
been flattened.” Only an initial assessment of the
losses inflicted upon this sector has been produced.
Irani says it will take much time before a clearer
picture emerges. The syndicate has written to the Arab
Publishers’ Union “to put it in the picture about the
cultural loss as a result of the war.”

One of the hardest hit publishing houses, Dar Ihyiaa
Al-Turath Al-Arabi, is one of the biggest with a
wealth of books and equipment worth $20 million. The
owner, Hicham Voladkar, said he was documenting losses
in order to present them to the Publishers’ Syndicate.
Voladkar, who owned three publishing houses in
Al-Dahiya, could not hide his shock and anger at the
loss of what he said were a collection of “rare
manuscripts” that had been the fruit of 45 years of
loving labour. “There were a wealth of resources on
Arab and Islamic heritage which no one owned except
us,” he said.

Dar Al-Mahjaa Al-Baydaa is another bookshop that was
hard hit. Its exhibition hall of 500 square metres was
reduced to ashes. It once housed thousands of the
latest titles from as far as Iran to Algeria,
including Jordanian, French and Moroccan titles. “A
few days before the war, we had just received the
latest titles for display in the new season but now it
is all dust,” Ahmed Kharsa, the house owner, said.

The case with Hassan Bazzi owner of Al-Amir House for
Culture and Science is equally saddening. Al-Amir has
published more than 3,000 titles to date. The most
tragic part is Bazzi’s lost archive. “My archive
included 62,000 titles. Sometimes Sayid Mohamed
Hussein Fadlullah — the prominent Shia leader — used
to borrow from me some of the titles he found
interesting,” he said dejectedly. The archive included
some manuscripts dating back 400 years ago.

Al-Amir publishing house was preparing to participate
in the Bint Jbeil Book Fair held every year and that
brings together more than 100 Lebanese publishers.
Israeli warplanes deliberately targeted the fairground
and destroyed it. “There is a moral and cultural loss
that far exceeds the material loss,” Bazzi said. “In a
way, Israel’s war on Lebanon was also a war on culture
and civilisation.”

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