Eastern promise

<p>An old Arabic saying goes: &ldquo;What the Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read.&rdquo; With Lebanon still rebuilding itself and Iraq in tatters it is no wonder that the rich Gulf states have been trying to muscle in on the action. Abu Dhabi recently declared itself the hub of the Arabic book trade. And Bloomsbury has bizarrely set up an Arabic publishing house in the tiny state of Qatar where only 20% of the 900,000 population read Arabic. Half a century ago the Gulf states were nothing more than ports. Now they are trying to re-create themselves as world financial and cultural centres, which will stand them in good stead after the oil runs out.</p>
<p>While one welcomes the re-ignition of the Arabic book trade, the business is tiny by European standards. Egypt, its population representing 40% of the Arab world, has an estimated trade of only &pound;50m. Arabs simply don&rsquo;t read for pleasure. According to Unesco, an Arab citizen spends no more than six minutes or four pages reading for pleasure a year. <br />
This is reflected in a typical Egyptian bookshop where the majority of stock is religious with a smattering of self-help titles. It is hard to find works by Nobel Prize-winning author Naguib Mahfouz or recent stars such as Alaa el-Aswany, author of T<i>he Yacoubian Building</i>. This is a country where the typical print run of a bestseller is only 5,000.</p>
<p>The Arabic book trade is highly disorganised: no central catalogue, no wholesalers, and many publishers are distributors and booksellers too. In Syria, copyright laws do not exist. Visiting a Syrian stand at the Cairo book fair would give any UK publisher heart palpitations with numerous pirated editions displayed. There is also a darker side to these book fairs with vast numbers of anti-Zionist, anti-Christian and anti-American books. Arabic editions of Mein Kampf sit alongside books by radical clerics. An initiative called Kitab, a venture between Abu Dhabi&rsquo;s Authority for Culture &amp; Heritage and the Frankfurt Book Fair, has been set up to explore these issues.</p>
<p>So are there opportunities? There will be growth in the export market for UK books simply because of the immense population growth in places like Dubai&mdash;80% of the population are foreign-born. In the main, the talented authors come from Egypt, with others from <br />
Lebanon and Palestine. A recent exception has been Saudi writer Rajaa Al-Sanie with <i>Girls of Riyadh</i>, originally published in Lebanon.</p>
<p>Although there are initiatives to grow reading levels, it is doubtful that the indigenous Arabic book market will grow significantly without a huge cultural shift. Ebooks could bypass distribution and censorship issues, albeit with an increased risk in piracy.</p>