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After 44 years, London’s first Arabic bookshop closes down | Arts and Tradition Information


London, United Kingdom – The final days of Al-Saqi Books have been a few of its busiest.

A closing-down sale ensured a gradual stream of consumers flitting out and in, most expressing confusion and disappointment on the information that the long-lasting London bookshop, positioned within the Bayswater space, would shut its doorways for the ultimate time on December 31.

“It’s such a tragic development,” muttered one older man in a Syrian dialect as he stood by the cashier. “Folks don’t need to learn books any extra; they like their tablets and laptops.”

Established in 1978 as the primary Arabic bookstore in London, Al-Saqi Books represented a treasure trove of literary works for Arab expatriates dwelling within the metropolis and throughout Europe. It was a vital vacation spot for Arabs visiting London, who have been buoyed by the truth that they might get their palms on books that may in any other case be censored in their very own nations.

“For Arab vacationers, Saqi Books was a must-see place,” mentioned Badr al-Modaires, a Kuwaiti author in his late 60s who travels to London 4 occasions a 12 months.

“It’s one of many symbols in London,” he added.

“Each go to right here, I’ve to go and purchase books for myself and my buddies, who give me a listing of what they need.”

Badr al-Modaires, a Kuwaiti writer, visits London and Saqi Books four times a year
Badr al-Modaires, a Kuwaiti author, visits London and Al-Saqi Books 4 occasions a 12 months [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

‘A house away from house’

The lilting voice of Algerian-Lebanese singer Warda’s well-known music Batwanes Beek filtering all through the store did little to alleviate Salwa Gaspard’s ache.

As one of many co-founders, shutting down the bookshop after 44 years was the very last thing that she wished.

“I’ve spent a lifetime caring for this bookshop – extra years than elevating my very own youngsters,” she mentioned. “My husband, additionally a co-founder, looks like he’s shedding a baby. However have you ever seen what London is like lately? It’s an excessive amount of.”

Numerous financial challenges, some pushed by the UK’s departure from the European Union and fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, together with excessive transport prices, rising costs of books and extortionate taxes, have weighed closely on the store.

“I learn someplace that two-thirds of UK residents are reducing down on non-essential stuff, and books and the cinema rely as non-essential,” she mentioned. “Leisure gadgets are actually obtainable from the consolation of 1’s house, whether or not that’s shopping for a digitised e-book or renting a film.”

Gaspard, alongside along with her husband Andre and their late good friend Mai Ghoussoub have been dwelling in Paris in the course of the late 70s, having fled Lebanon because of the civil warfare. Collectively, they selected opening the bookshop after Ghoussoub observed a scarcity of a bodily Arab cultural house in London.

The identify Saqi and its brand are derived from a portray by an influential Iraqi artist, Jawad Salim, known as The Water Vendor.

“We preferred it as a result of we noticed it as a metaphor for watering tradition, or a culture-seller,” Gaspard mentioned.

Salwa Gaspard, one of the co-founders of Saqi Books
Salwa Gaspard, one of many co-founders of Al-Saqi Books in London [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

The bookshop began small, shopping for inventory from publishers in Lebanon and Egypt.

“Within the 80s, the Arabs have been thirsting for data and handled our bookshop as an oasis,” she mentioned. “It was a house away from house.”

The cabinets later grew to incorporate books in English, to fulfill rising curiosity amongst Westerners to study Arabs culturally, one thing that was restricted by the mainstream media’s portrayal of the Arab world.

However the previous 4 many years weren’t with out challenges and controversy.

Lately, in July 2021, the basement flooded, destroying a whole lot of books.

The shopfront’s home windows have additionally been smashed just a few occasions, equivalent to in the course of the Salman Rushdie Satanic Verses affair within the late 80s.

Saving the legacy of the Saqi tradition

Through the years, Al-Saqi Books attracted its justifiable share of celebrities.

Syrian poet Adonis and the late Egyptian feminist Nawal el-Saadawi have been no strangers to the bookshop.

Ahmed Zaki Yamani, the previous Saudi minister of petroleum, and Suheil Bushrui, the late Palestinian professor and outstanding scholar of Lebanese author Gibran Khalil Gibran’s works, have been additionally frequent guests.

“Years in the past, Chris Martin of Coldplay and Gwyneth Paltrow got here right here to search for a duplicate of One Thousand and One Nights for his or her youngsters,” Gaspard mentioned. “[British musician and composer] Brian Eno additionally got here right here.”

For Mohammad Masoud, a bookseller at Al-Saqi Books, the closure feels unfathomable.

For the previous two years, the 28-year-old has answered nearly each query prospects had about numerous authors or titles.

“For me, Saqi was like an edifice that may at all times stay,” he mentioned. “I had heard concerning the bookshop for years, however by no means imagined I might get a chance to work in it. It was a dream come true.”

Customers inside Al Saqi Books during its closing-down sale
Prospects inside Al-Saqi Books throughout its closing down sale [Linah Alsaafin/Al Jazeera]

Masoud moved to London from Jordan in 2020, and had beforehand labored within the Abdul Hameed Shoman Library and Books@cafe in Amman.

As soon as he acquired over his shock on the information that Al-Saqi would shut, he set to work on Maqam, an initiative to avoid wasting the Arabic content material and books in London.

“The tradition I skilled right here may be very wealthy and I don’t suppose it will likely be replicated wherever else,” he mentioned. “Folks would come to Saqi with a real curiosity in understanding extra concerning the books and shopping for them. Right here, I discovered that no matter one’s background – Arab and Westerners – there was a large turnout for the Saqi tradition, the expertise of being hungry for books, eager to know extra.”

He needs to assist go down this tradition to the subsequent technology and his imaginative and prescient begins with a crowdfunding marketing campaign that may launch in January.

The main target is to proceed the legacy of Al-Saqi Books, as a cultural, instructional and media manufacturing house, moderately than a bookshop.

“Arabs in London would come to Saqi to really feel a part of an extension of the cultural house, one that isn’t taken over by politics or faith,” he mentioned. “The tradition is a counter to what the mainstream media has portrayed Arabs as within the final 30 or 40 years: as a backwards, regressive conservative Islamist monolith, with no heritage and no range.”

Now’s the time for youthful Arab generations in London to grab the Arab cultural house, he defined, saying many individuals – Arabs and Westerners alike – need to know extra about Arab tradition.

“That is what Maqam is about. It exists for people who find themselves in want of Arabic content material and trying to find belonging,” Masoud mentioned, referring to the brand new initiative. “It should embody a restaurant, an area for studying, a spot for doing manufacturing, calligraphy, embroidery, and for studying the Arabic language.”

Regardless of the tip of an period for the bookshop, Al-Saqi’s two publishing homes in English and Arabic underneath the identical identify will proceed to function in London and Beirut respectively.

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