Darf Publishers, which focuses on Arabic fiction in translation, is looking to make an impact on the UK market with its 2015 list.
Although managing director Ghassan Fergiani relaunched the publishing company last year, it is actually a much older family business, one that originated in Tripoli, Libya, in 1952, when Fergiani’s father Mohammed opened his first bookshop. As the shops flourished, Mohammed began dealing with publishers and importing books from abroad which led him into publishing.
But after Colonel Gaddafi came to power in 1969, Mohammed’s bookshops were taken from him. So in 1979 he left for London, leaving his family behind. Ghassan joined his father in 1994 when the family opened West End Lane Bookshop (and later Queens Park Bookshop, in 2004) and publishing took a backseat.
While the bookshops are still owned by the Fergiani family, Ghassan’s focus is now on relaunching Darf. He released two Libyan novels last year: Ahmed Fagih’s Maps of the Soul (translated by Thoraya Allam and Brian Loo); and Mansour Bushnaf’s Chewing Gum (translated by Mona Zakir). Ghassan said: “We try to find writers that wouldn’t have a chance to be introduced to a Western readership otherwise. There’s a lot of noise in Middle Eastern publishing—there is a lot of vanity publishing and publishers taking money from authors—so we have to go through a lot of books to find good ones.”
In June, Darf publishes its fifth book, The Confines of the Shadow by Alessandro Spina (£9.99; translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely). Spina was born in Libya in 1927 and moved to Italy with his mother in 1939 before returning to Libya in 1954. However, he left in 1980 after his books came under scrutiny from the Gaddafi regime. June also sees the publication of Hurma by Yemeni writer Ali al-Muqri (£8.99; translated by Thomas Aplin). Ghassad described the book as “a satirical but serious look at the hypocrisy of Middle Eastern society and Islamists towards women”. He discovered the book in an Arabic bookshop and then tracked down the author: “I called the publisher and was told the author owned the rights so I tracked him down and we reached an agreement.”
In October, Darf will publish Translating Libya by Ethan Chorin (£8.99), which is “part anthology and part travelogue and presents the country through the eyes of 16 Libyan short story writers and one American diplomat”. Next year Darf will publish its first Young Adult title, Oh, Freedom! by Francesco D’Adamo (£8.99; translated by Sian Williams), which is set in the American South.
Ghassan admits that “the commercial success is not there yet” but plans to seek out unheard voices from smaller European countries and Africa to grow Darf’s list: “There are a lot of good writers and stories that publishers do not want to risk money on or stand behind. I want Darf to be known and the way to do that is produce good books and hope someone will see.”
Representing Libya and Libyan writers is fundamental to Ghassan: “We need to reach out and be heard so people can understand what’s going on. As a Libyan you only hear negative things about your country—all people know about is Gaddafi. It makes you wish something good would happen that would represent us.
“But through art and culture you can learn a different picture of Libya, and stories are how you can learn about other cultures. If I can be a small dot on the narrative of Libya, and be seen to be doing well and [proving] that not everything to do with Libya is about Gaddafi and violence, then that is important.”
Distribution is by Turnaround.