first book fair in one of iraq\'s most dangerous cities
One of the most dangerous cities in Iraq recently held its first book fair. And despite concerns about security in the troubled northern city of Mosul, the event was an unprecedented success for both locals and
A sign hanging between two power poles and some traffic lights showed him the way he wanted to go. And as soon as Mosul man, Faysal al-Jarba, arrived at the venue, his eyes widened in delight. “I never expected this to be so good,” al-Jarba, 30, exclaimed, scanning the place and uncertain where he should begin.
Al-Jarba, a civil society activist working for a local NGO, was one of hundreds of Mosul locals to visit the city’s first international book fair. The fair was held inside the relatively small 600 square meter premises of Mosul’s Association of Engineers. The venue also happens to be only around 1,500 meters away from the historic Royal Library of Ashurbanipal, one of the first organized libraries known to man and named after named after Ashurbanipal, last king of the Neo-Assyrian Empire – that was something organisers saw as a good omen for the book fair.
And it seems they were right to do so. By the end of the nine day event, which opened March 20, it had been so successful that it was extended another 36 hours. So for 11 and a half days, all sorts of Mosul locals visited. Some bought books while others were just pleased to be able to browse and enjoy a cultural event in a city more often in the news because of political disputes and violence. Authors signed contracts with publishers and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of books were sold. There were also a series of peripheral events focusing on local arts and crafts.
The book fair was planned and prepared for in record time, Nabil Nour ad-Din, a member of the book fair’s organising committee and also the head of the Archaeology Department at Mosul University, told NIQASH. From idea to reality took around 75 days, he explained, but “we were not sure how successful we would be”.
“In fact, following contact with potential visiting publishers, we were told they had a lot of fears about security in Mosul and we really didn’t think we would get more than 40 publishing houses coming here,” ad-Din said.
“Actually when he got here, one of the Lebanese publishers asked me whether he should be worried about losing his life,” ad-Din continued. “But I told him not to worry, that he would be OK and he would realise that all by himself.”
And in the end, ad-Din says, “the number of participants in the book fair exceeded all of our expectations. More than a hundred Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Gulf and Iraqi publishing houses came.”
“Our friends advised us not to come here because of the very difficult security conditions in Mosul,” Lebanese publisher Khalid al-Ani said, as he was preparing for the opening of the book fair. “But we were determined to come, we wanted to help make this major cultural event a success,” he explained proudly.
And al-Ani was not the only one. There were also publishers from Beirut, Damascus and Jordan, with each displaying thousands of new titles. The organisers estimate that altogether around 500 publishers made it to the Mosul book fair.
But all in all, it wasn’t really officialdom that made visiting publishers happy, Watheq al-Ghadanfari, another member of the fair’s organizing committee, said. “Rather, it was the huge crowds of visitors. Numbers increased day after day and it was this that encouraged the publishers and made them feel at ease,” al-Ghadanfari explained.
And it seemed they were able to make good money there too. Even after the fair was extended by 36 hours due to popular demand, the books were never discounted – an indication that the publishers must not have needed to shift stock; it was shifting itself.
A publisher from the Centre for Arab Unity Studies, based in Beirut, said a lot of Mosul locals had told him they were spending the money they usually saved for the Erbil book fair, held in the semi-autonomous state of Iraqi Kurdistan, in their own province.
“Ninawa’s book fair could easily compete with other similar events,” Khaled Duaibes told NIQASH, “as long as they overcome certain problems related to the venue, and a couple of other organizational problems.”
In fact, al-Ghadanfari let slip that one publisher reported sales reaching up to US$200,000. Non-Arabic books also sold well apparently.
The publishers also met with plenty of authors. Al-Ani told how he signed at least 30 contracts, adding that he had more manuscripts to read too.
And for local calligrapher Taleb al-Azzawi, one of the craftsmen attending the fair, the event was a golden opportunity for promotion. He practises his craft on animal skins and he reported enthusiastically that: “many people got to know me because of this fair. It was also very active intellectually.”
As for the visitors themselves, they too were pleased. “We’ve been waiting for this event for a long time,” al-Jarba told NIQASH. “We don’t have any public libraries or publishers here in Mosul. I’ve found books here that I would have had to travel to Baghdad or Erbil to buy.”
But of course, no book fair is without its critics. Some found it strange that books by local writers were only on display and not for sale. Nor were these locally produced books particularly well promoted – only small pieces of barely legible, hand written paper directed fair visitors to them.
A lot of the local visitors also complained about the high prices of books. But as one publisher visiting from Jordan pointed out, the people of Mosul are simply not used to purchasing new books or first editions, which is what a lot of the publications there were.
As he packed his remaining, unsold stock on the final day, Siraj Othman, the owner of the Zaman Publishing house, reported that he was satisfied with what he’d achieved at the Mosul book. But, he added, “most of the people on the organizing committee have no idea how to organise an international book fair.”
He was also under the impression that the amount of books bought by the city’s scientific and cultural institutions - such as, for example, the local university – was minimal compared with individuals.
For instance, Muyasar al-Najmawi, the owner of a small bookshop in central Mosul, says he bought around US$5,000 worth of books for his store. That’s twice the amount spent by the Faculty of Archaeology at Mosul University, one of the faculties with the biggest budget for books.
In the end though, the Mosul book fair was considered a raging success. The local government allocated a budget of only US$40,000 for the fair; considering the eventual impact of the event, this was a comparatively small investment. Local council member Issam Ayed has also said that, given the success of the book fair, he would propose that the province build a venue for future trade fairs.
As the fair’s participants packed up their displays, organizing committee member, ad-Din sought out his friend, the Lebanese publisher who had previously been scared for his life.
“So, how did you find it here?” ad-Din asked when he found the man.
“Neither myself nor any of my colleagues had any security problems,” the Lebanese publisher replied. “We are leaving with very positive impressions and we’ll tell anyone who told us not to come, that they were wrong. And,” he added, as he stowed luggage in his car, “I’ll be back next year.”