As in other parts of the world, Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has spread unevenly across the Middle East and North Africa, hitting some areas hard while sparing others almost entirely. Yet in the interconnected world of Arabic publishing, all of the region’s publishers have been jolted by the coronavirus shutdowns, from Morocco to Oman and Bahrain.
A “Publishers Without Borders” panel held May 2 over Zoom addressed the particular challenges Arab publishers are facing as countries struggle with how to respond to this pandemic.
Publishers on the panel noted that the cancellations of regional and international book fairs since early March have posed a key challenge. Fairs sit at the heart of the Arabic book business. In the absence of reliable distribution networks, many Arab publishers stay afloat by carrying their books from one fair to another around the region. “This stopped,” said Sherif Bakr, head of Egypt’s Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing. “So everything stops.”
The book fairs that are traditionally held in January and February went on as scheduled. But after the Muscat, Oman, fair ended on March 7, the cancellations began. The mammoth London Book Fair, set for March 10 to 12 and where Sharjah’s publishing industry was set to be the “market focus,” was canceled. The Bahrain International Book Fair (March 25 to April 4) followed, as did the enormous Riyadh (April 2-11) and Abu Dhabi (April 15-21) fairs. Specialized and regional book fairs were also canceled or postponed.
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Even before the coronavirus pandemic, some countries’ publishing industries were already in a state of crisis. The 2019 Beirut Arab International Book Fair had been postponed because of the country’s waves of anti-corruption protests. Rania Moallem, editorial director of the publishing house Dar al-Saqi, in Beirut, was not optimistic about the future.
“The publishing crisis existed before the epidemic, but it has worsened today, with sales stalling completely, the printing and publishing ceasing, all book fairs canceled,” Moallem said in an email. “Added to this is the economic crisis we face in Lebanon and the banks’ blocking of funds. Today, we are trying to focus on sales of e-books and audiobooks, but sales are very small and won’t allow us to continue if the situation remains as it is.”