Nearly 45-year-old Temple of Arabic Literature to Close in London – 01/03/2023, 07:41

London bookshop director Al Saqi Salwa Gaspard on December 14, 2022 (AFP / Isabel INFANTES)

Salwa Gaspard looks politely at the dark wooden shelves that hold hundreds of Arabic books, putting some away as she exchanges a few words with the customers. In a few days, his London bookstore, known to letter lovers throughout the Middle East, will close.

The Al Saghi bookstore has not survived the pandemic, Brexit and political and economic chaos in Lebanon, where the couple’s publishing company prints and ships most of its books.

However, since it was opened in 1978 by Salva, her husband André and a friend of the couple, the bookshop, located in a white columned building not far from Paddington station, has become an important place.

“There was nothing cultural” for visitors from the Middle East, recalls Salva, and success came soon: “They went to Oxford Street (the main shopping street), Knightsbridge (the district of the famous Harrod’s department store) and Al Saghi bookstore.”.

In Arabic, Al Saqi means the person who carries water in the desert, “a perfect name”, the 74-year-old bookseller assured AFP.

The bookstore also sells English-language essays about the Arab world to promote “a different idea of ​​the Middle East than the violent images on television or in newspapers.”

– Asylum” –

With success, the couple set up a publishing company, first translating Arabic authors such as The Crusades by the Arabs by the French-Lebanese Amin Maalouf into English, and a few years later publishing books in Arabic in Lebanon. .

For more than 40 years, many writers, such as the famous Syrian poet Adonis, have come there to present their works. A meeting place, sometimes even a “refuge” for expatriates uprooted by war or economic crisis in the Middle East, Al Saghi bookstore has always fiercely defended its independence and spirit of openness.

Shelves at London's Al Saqi bookstore December 14, 2022 (AFP/Isabel INFANTES)

Shelves at London’s Al Saqi bookstore December 14, 2022 (AFP/Isabel INFANTES)

“People felt they had friends here who would understand them, because the events that affected them “happened in many countries in the Middle East,” Salva said.

And even though the owners have always been careful to stay out of politics, the bookstore has not escaped the vicissitudes of geopolitics. Sometimes at one’s own risk and peril, as in 1988 when Salman Rushdie’s window was broken during a screening of The Devil’s Verses.

“We never believed in censorship. (…) we didn’t want to ban anything,” recalls Salva.

The couple was also held responsible when the Israeli Abba Eban published a translation of the work of the Egyptian writer Tawfiq al-Hakim. “People were angry (…) It was before the peace process, but it was just an intellectual union between an Egyptian and an Israeli.”

– To spread Arab culture –

The announcement that the bookstore was closing at the end of the month prompted an avalanche of sad messages.

Ouissal Harize, who has an Algerian flag on her profile, “thanks” the bookstore for “home away from home” on Twitter. Or Nasri Atallah, who recalls “the pillar of my whole life in London and my father before me.”

News of the closure of London's Al Saqi bookshop at the end of the month has sparked an outpouring of grief (AFP/Isabel INFANTES)

News of the closure of London’s Al Saqi bookshop at the end of the month has sparked an outpouring of grief (AFP/Isabel INFANTES)

“It was like a sanctuary in London, so it’s very bad news,” said Farah Otozbeer, a 24-year-old Egyptian student who had just graduated from the London School of Economics and was passing through London to get her degree. he insisted on coming one last time.

The bookstore “has always been a place where Arabic-speaking people from all over the Middle East came to buy books they couldn’t buy in their own countries,” especially because of censorship. Joseph Devine, an English clerk at the bookstore and a former student of Arabic, laments that he “also has a big role in translating literature and essays into English and making them available to the English-speaking public.”

After Covid-19, the bookshop hoped to make a comeback, but the current economic crisis in the UK, rising costs and the chaotic situation in Lebanon dampened Salva’s hopes: “When we fled Lebanon, ‘We’ didn’t” We have no family in London. It was our family, the employees and even some of the customers were like our family, and we are losing all of that today.”

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