Before the financial crisis began in the northern region of Iraqi Kurdistan, there had been dozens of publishing houses, both small and large, plying their trade. But since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2014, they have been declining steadily.
According to numbers provided by the semi-autonomous region’s General Directorate of Libraries, there were 2,809 newly printed books registered in Iraqi Kurdistan in 2013. In 2017, that number had dropped to 808. Even though the numbers don’t account for all the books published here - some are simply released without a library registration number - that does indicate a significant reduction.
It is true that the number of printed books has decreased. But in many ways that is OK because now a better quality of books is being published.
Some of the books being published in Iraqi Kurdistan were written by local authors and others were translations. But book sellers did well because locals had extra money to spend on things like this. Now it seems books have become a luxury that many can no longer afford.
“Reading doesn’t fill the stomach,” locals say, meaning that in a time of limited resources, they’d rather spend their money on more essential things. Add to this the fact that locals can also find plenty to read online and that reading has never been a great intellectual tradition in parts of Iraqi Kurdistan anyway, and all this spells trouble for the publishing business.
A lecturer at the University of Salahaddin in Erbil, Frsat Rozhbaiany, says that often teachers will prescribe a reading list for students – but they won’t encourage students to do anything further than the bare minimum. Which accounts for a lack of enthusiasm and support for local books.
There is a growing list of casualties. Aras Press was a well-known publisher that had been getting support directly from Iraqi Kurdistan’s government. But now there is a big padlock on its doors and no books have been published there in six years.
In May 2017, Hazar Majid, the owner of the Andisheh publishing house, announced that he was in debt. Part of his business involved a cultural centre and a kind of lending library but he said on his Facebook page that he could no longer afford to stay open and would have to start selling off the furniture. In his message, he asked locals to help him stay open and as yet, the associated Andisheh Cultural Centre still exists.
However, Andisheh has gone from being one of the most prolific publishing houses and the host of many events, to virtual silence.
Government-run publishers are not putting out the same number of books as they used to either. Some of the region’s universities as well as ministries of education and culture used to publish their own books but that number has decreased too, says Nawzat Jalal, head of libraries in Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, the ministry of culture only printed ten books in the last year, Jalal notes.
To diversify the owners started a small cinema for Kurdish and international films that had been translated. “There has been a decrease in the number of people who buy our books,” Dana Ismail, one of the owners of Xazalnus, told NIQASH. “But we have not received a single dinar from any party other than our readers. It is they who keep us going.”
A number of booksellers in Iraqi Kurdistan say that the only books people are buying at the moment are textbooks. Store owners in Erbil report two kinds of customers: ordinary readers and then university students. At the moment, the students outnumber the other group by a lot, they say.
One of the only optimists in the business is Soran Aziz, founder of the Maly Wafaey Foundation, which is still publishing. “It is true that the number of printed books has decreased,” Aziz told NIQASH. “But in many ways that is OK because now a better quality of books is being published. Despite poor economic conditions, books are still being sold.”