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November 5, 2009
Reporting back from Beirut’s Francophone book fair

Reporting back from Beirut’s Francophone book fair

The 16th edition of the Lebanese Francophone book fair was held in Beirut, at the BIEL exhibit center, from October 23rd through November 1st, and was particularly successful. In the context of Beirut World Book Capital 2009, France’s Ile-de-France department was this year’s guest of honor, featuring Parisian publishers, most of which are small independent houses – not your regular French book sold in Beirut. Also noticed was the presence of the Provence-Alpes-Cote D’Azur department, from the South of France, the Belgian stand, and the Swiss stand. Not to mention the ‘5 continents literary prize’, won by Togolese writer Kossi Efoui.

This year’s Francophone fair definitely had an international flavor to it.

The Francophone book fair is however not the only important moment for books in Beirut. Another event, considered as more important by some, is the International Beirut book fair (Maarad al kitab al duwali), more commonly called the ‘Arab’ book fair. Clearly, the two fairs can first be set apart by the language they promote, and are perceived as differentiated in this way by readers and publishers alike. ‘We are excluded from the Francophone fair’, says the owner and manager of one of Beirut’s largest (Arabic) houses. Indeed, not only is the exclusion mutual, it also spreads its roots deep in the Lebanese society, promoting, along with books, an implicit social divide.

Targeting readers, the respective French and Arab fairs are generally not visited by the same people. Asking Smail Chahine, bookseller and founder of Hermel’s cultural center, a town in the North of the Bekaa plain, if, as in the Francophone fair, schools visited the Arab book fair, he explains that they do. But ‘it is not the same schools at all’, he quickly adds. The majority of the schools that take their students to the Francophone fair are private schools where French is the teaching language – hearing children in the fair’s alleys hailing each other by their Western first names, in French, is an eloquent illustration. The majority of the schools that take their students to the Arab fair are public schools, or private Islamic schools. Due to the country’s communitarian geography, students of these two types of schools seldom have a chance to meet, not even in book fairs it seems.

So why not have a single book fair, promoting the country’s cultural and linguistic diversity, and allow for the different social milieus to meet around books, be exposed to each group’s favorite authors and literature, hear the same talks?

Initially, the idea behind the Francophone book fair was also to promote the book chain by allowing booksellers to sell books, instead of publishers, as is usually done in the Arab world. This practice, quite harmful to booksellers, has been ongoing in the Arab world where book fairs are the most efficient, if not only, way to diffuse and distribute books. There are over 10 book fairs in the Arab world, almost one per month in different countries, where publishers over all the area come with their stock of books that they sell directly to booksellers and to the public at a lower price.

In a sense, publishers compete with booksellers, on which they still have to rely to sell their books in the city once the fair is over. Bookshops truly suffer in the Arab cities, and one should mention the closing down of the over 30 years old landmark ‘Ras Beirut Bookshop’ in December 2008. The bookshop, owned and managed by Fadia Geha had to close down after the building in which it held its premises, strategically facing the Amercian University in Beirut campus, was bought by promoters, torn down, and turned into luxury apartments.

Arab publishers often complain, with reason, that they do not sell enough books. And it is widely known that there is no book diffusion and hardly any distribution in our part of the world, which is why Arab book fairs are the way they are. However, weakening the position of the bookshop in the book chain is hardly the way to develop the industry. On the contrary, it aggravates the already difficult presence of books in our daily lives.

In line with its promotion of the French language policy, it was the French Embassy in Lebanon that had naturally initiated the Francophone fair in 1993, once called ‘Lire en français et en musique’ (Read in French and in Music). In 2008, the French Embassy decided to stop being its organizer for security reasons. Knowing that according to the BIEF (French Publishing International Bureau), Lebanon ranks among the 10 biggest importers of French books in he world, the fair went on regardless of the Embassy’s decision (and with its encouragements). Thus, since 2008, the fair has been organized by the Lebanese syndicate of book importers, and has been called ‘Salon du livre francophone’.

In the case of the Francophone fair, the books being imported, it seems quite natural to have booksellers manage the stands, and sell the books to the public. Still, book importers, which are generally booksellers themselves, will not accept to represent only a few Francophone publishers, in order to give them the visibility they usually have in other fairs of the world. Stands are in the names of the booksellers, not the publishers, and the same books are found everywhere. A noteworthy example is the presence of Le Clezio’s books on every bookseller’s stand. The Nobel Prize winner and French house Gallimard author, was expected for a book signing. Le Clezio did not sign his book on any of the stands, but in the exhibit center’s conference room, ‘so as to allow every bookseller to have a chance to sell his Le Clezio books’ I was told.

The Francophone book fair vaguely feels like a booksellers’ fair, except that it only concerns French written books, and thus excludes all the other booksellers of the country. Furthermore, the Francophone book fair does not only feature imported books. Lebanese houses that publish in French are also welcome. They sell their books on the stands of the booksellers, as well as on their own, turning this general public fair into a communication event – where they can incidentally also sell their books directly to the reader.

Thus, the Francophone fairs aims at diffusing imported books, but not exclusively, since it does not exclude all Lebanese publishers. It aims at promoting the role of booksellers, but not exhaustively, since it does not include all booksellers. The Francophone fair’s mission, apart from promoting French written books, is not clear.

What is clear, sadly, is that in both ‘French’ and ‘Arab’ fairs, as they are more commonly called, the deficiencies of the book industry have a direct impact on the readers. Instead of using literature to fill the gap, they unwillingly contribute to feed a latent, but perceptible, social fracture.

Yasmina Jraissati