DAMASCUS – The annual Damascus International Book Fair returned this year after a four-year hiatus. But as the country’s war enters its sixth year, the cultural event has taken on political and religious undertones not seen before.
Among the rows of books and publishing house kiosks were dozens of posters of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Religious, self-help and political materials dominated the offerings.
The world renowned book fair was expanded in 2009 and relocated from the Assad National Library to the much larger Exhibition and Fairgrounds. In 2010, the Damascus International Book Fair reached its peak, showcasing 389 Arab and international publishing houses from 20 countries.
But in 2011, the rising political instability in the country took its toll on the annual event. The number of participating publishing houses declined to 217, and the number of countries represented dropped to 14. Many thought that year’s book fair would be the last.
And it almost was – until this year.
Returning to its prior location in the Assad National Library, the 28th Damascus International Book Fair was noticeably smaller. Reflecting the political changes, most of the publishing houses were local since many Arab publishers boycotted the event. Whereas in 2010, the guest of honor was the state of Qatar, this year’s book fair had a strong Iranian, Russian and Iraqi presence. Books with political content were plentiful, ranging from Vladimir Lenin’s works to pro-government writers from the region.
Books about Islam have always been present at Damascus’ book fair, but they dominated the scene this year with a noticeable increase of Iranian religious publications. The Syrian Ministry of Religious Endowment also had its own section at the fair, where families were offered to register their children for Quran memorization classes.
“The book fair underestimated people’s intelligence,” said Shadia, a 21-year-old Arabic literature university student attending the book fair for the first time. She pointed out that pirated books were openly being sold at the fair, and that visitors were offered a free copy of “The Road to Happiness,” a self-help book that boasts having the “simple secrets of a happy life,” if they posted a photo of themselves carrying the book on Facebook.
The turnout for the exhibition was less than expected, despite its long-awaited return. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) said the number of visitors to the book fair was “reasonable.” Most visitors left the fair without any books in their hands, instead spending time outside taking selfies next to the statue of the late Syrian president, Hafez al-Assad, and sipping on free drinks provided by the fair’s cafeteria.
Just beyond the book fair entrance, on one side, was the Russian Cultural Center, and on the other the Iranian Cultural Chancellery, neither of which had any literary books nor visitors. The book fair also displayed material for many Iranian universities and publishing houses. On the other end of the book fair, in a hidden corner, was a kiosk for the University of Damascus that looked hastily added, complete with a little podium for writers to sign their books. Nearby was an area dedicated to the Computer Engineering Company, which promoted its electronic products through special offers.
Contrary to the current rules in Damascus, professional cameras and photo shoots were allowed at the book fair. Those entering the fair with a camera were not questioned and did not need to obtain special permission to photograph the event.
According to Jamal, a 24-year-old salesperson managing a publishing house kiosk at the fair, the political goals behind the fair were very clear, but “the publishing houses do not care, because all they want is to increase their sales. People, on the other hand, visit the book fair because books are offered at discounted prices.” This applies especially to books published in Lebanon, as their prices have increased tenfold since the beginning of the war.
Criticism on social media and in newspapers of the political slant of the Damascus International Book Fair did not seem to concern the Syrian government. The regime also did not address the fact that its former minister of culture, Riyad Nasan Agha, who inaugurated the book fair in 2010, is today a part of the opposition and lives outside the country.
The book fair, above all, was an attempt to show that a sense of normalcy continues in Damascus despite the violence taking place just outside the capital.