“A nation that does not read does not exist”: Palestinian publishers and bookstores under threat

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Online sales, e-books and Israeli restrictions on imports threaten book culture

The popular bookstore, located near the Old Town of Nablus, has been selling books at the same location for more than five decades. When it was founded, there were only three bookstores in the Palestinian city.

Khaled Khandakji, the bookstore’s executive director since its inception and an avid reader himself, told The Media Line that Palestinian history books were the most popular item in the 1980s. changed, people’s tastes for books have changed.

Khalid Khandakji waits for customers at the popular bookstore in the Old City of Nablus, West Bank, July 27, 2022. (Mohammad Al-Kassim/The Media Line)

“The most popular books these days are novels, human development and religious books,” he says.

He remembers the many times his bookstore was forced to close by order of the Israeli army.

Naturally, our resistance to the occupation went through the book. My first concern is to communicate the idea and enlighten minds through the books. In my opinion, national culture is very important for all age groups from adolescence.

“Naturally, our resistance to the occupation was through the book. My first concern is to communicate the idea and enlighten minds through the books. In my opinion, national culture is very important for all age groups, starting from adolescence,” says Khandakji.

He added that a list of banned books is regularly given to him and other booksellers. “The occupation affects bookstores in that you cannot import books printed in countries that oppose ‘standardization’; they are confiscated at crossing points,” Khandakji added.

The list of prohibited items exceeds 100 titles per month, he says. “They ban patriotic books and some political books.”

“Between the first and second intifada, repeated closures by the Israeli military, and recently with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, bookstores have pushed to diversify the products they sell, adding items like stationery so that they can survive,” said the sixty-something. -Old Khandakji said.

His bookstore has been a destination for bookworms for decades. But the threat of closure looms constantly over his head, he says, citing falling revenue. Book publishing and bookstores are struggling to stay afloat in a tough economy.

“The profit margin barely pays the expenses. Many days, we don’t sell anything all day. One day I thought of transforming this bookshop into a restaurant; I also want to live a decent life. I have responsibilities. But I quickly changed my mind. »

A multitude of factors lead to the decline of bookstores, including a turbulent economy and readers buying books online.

Finding a book online is much easier and faster. No more transport difficulties and the exhaustion of going to the bookstore.

Rogina Salem, a third-year university student studying business administration, told The Media Line that she enjoys books on various subjects. She switched to buying books online or e-books to satisfy her love of reading.

“Finding a book online is much easier and faster. No more transport difficulties and the exhaustion of going to the bookstore. I find buying books online much more comfortable.

But The Popular Bookstore refuses to disappear and puts social networks to work to survive.

“Yes, we have had a book delivery service throughout the West Bank since 2014, and in order to encourage people to buy books, we pay the delivery fee,” says Khandakji.

Khandakji refuses to back down, insisting that now is not the time to turn the last page of his book.

“I’m proud that my nephew opened a bookstore called Uncle Saleh; my son also opened a publishing house. The whole family works in the field of culture. My wish is to establish a book empire and libraries open to readers for free and place them in all public transport stations. Travelers take the book to Nablus to read it and return it upon arrival in Ramallah. God willing, I will,” Khandakji said.

South of Nablus, in the city of Ramallah, one of the main Palestinian publishing houses is considering closing its doors after more than two decades of activity.

This is another causality of a bad economy, tight profit margin, and declining readership.

For many people, a book is an afterthought when thinking about the family budget. Two months ago, we started to think seriously that this year would be the last. We can’t pay the rent.

Khader AlBiss, director of publishing house Dar Al-Shourouk, told The Media Line he may be writing his last chapter.

Dar Al-Shourouk publishing house, Ramallah, West Bank, July 27, 2022. (Mohammad Al-Kassim/The Media Line)

“The political and economic situation is one of the main reasons. For many people, a book is an afterthought when thinking about the family budget. Two months ago, we started to think seriously that this year would be the last. We can’t pay the rent. It’s a business that cost millions but is collapsing. We don’t have the capacity to continue,” says AlBiss.

Burdened by high taxes and import duties, coupled with competition from illegal publishers, traditional bookstores are under threat.

“I suffer as a publishing house that only deals with original copies of pirated and forged books. There is book theft, copyright infringement, and copyright theft,” says AlBiss .

Contrary to popular belief, he says, online bookstores contribute to sales at his bookstores.

“Technology has helped inform people about new releases,” says AlBiss.

For many book lovers, there’s nothing quite like holding a physical book in your hand. Books are made to be touched. Turning a page instead of sliding one is important to many people.

“There are still a large number of people who like the feel of paper. The paper book has a different taste and flavor. Smell the paper and get some ink on your fingers from the heart of the pages,” he says.

A handful of publishing houses and large bookstores are scattered throughout the Palestinian territories. AlBiss can’t stand the thought of not being here anymore. He complains, like many in the industry, of a lack of official or private support.

“It’s heartbreaking, frankly, but unfortunately we’re approaching closure very soon. There are nights I can’t sleep. I think it’s part of my duty to be responsible for Palestinian culture.

A project like this should be “banned from collapsing and fading away. Palestinian publishing houses must remain present to highlight Palestinian literary work abroad. The Palestinian narrative needs it. That’s the role of the publisher,” explains AlBiss.

A nation that does not read is a nation that does not exist

Former Palestinian Higher Education Minister Sabri Saidam, an avid reader, told The Media Line he was “saddened” by the downfall of bookstores.

“A nation that does not read is a nation that does not exist. The disappearance of books would mean the disappearance of knowledge,” he says.

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