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The Maghreb: From giving birth to the novel to where it stands today
Algeria – Abderrazak Boukebba
Al-Maghreb Al-Arabi (the Maghreb countries) is proud to be the birthplace of the first ever novel known by humankind – The Golden Ass (Asinus aureus) which dates back to late 2nd century AD and was written by Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis, the Latin language prose writer of Algerian origin.
The region also witnessed the second code of laws enacted by Juba II of Numidia (who died in 23 AD), after the Babylonian Code of Hammurabi, one of the earliest surviving codes of law in recorded history. Maghreb was home to Ibn Khaldun, who is best known for his book the Muqaddimah or Prolegomena (“Introduction”) who died in 1406 AD. Ibn Khaldun, an Arab Muslim historiographer and historian, is claimed as a forerunner of the modern disciplines of sociology and demography. Some historians also claim that the first Arab novel Hekayat Al Oshaq Fil Hob Wal Eshtiq (Lovers’ Tale of Love and Longing) was written in Maghreb by Algeria’s Mustafa Bin Ibrahim Pasha towards the end of the 19th century.
These pioneering works, in addition to a host of leading libraries which were known to characterise many Maghreb cities since the dawn of history, are a key indicator of the Maghreb region’s deeply-rooted relationship with books. This relationship, on the other hand, raises a very important question: Is this rich past also reflective of the region’s present?
The Maghreb region, which includes five countries: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya, has a population of about 100 million, representing one-third of the world’s Arab population. Around 77% of whom are educated, and some 70% of the total population are youth. The number of students in countries such as Algeria and Morocco is bigger than the population of some of the UN member states. Thus the Maghreb provides fertile ground for reading and offers a huge market for publishing.
Maghreb’s book fair statistics: A tale of success
There is a scarcity of studies and statistics on Maghreb region’s publishing houses and output. There is also no accurate or up to date data on usual or compulsory ISBN registration of titles that have recently been stocked by national libraries. Moreover, a wide range of publishers do not reveal their sales for reasons to do with copyright and taxes. All these factors contribute to the gloom surrounding the publishing sector, and make the information available subject to debate.
In view of this situation monitoring the turnout at book fairs (including exhibitors, participants and visitors) – particularly the international ones held in the Maghreb capitals of Casablanca, Tunis and Algiers – remains the only source of accurate data. According to the International Book Fair of Algiers (Salon international du Livre d’Alger (SILA’s) official website, the number of publishers participating in the SILA’s 20th edition held in 2015 totaled 910 from 53 countries, including 290 Algerian publishing houses. The fair witnessed 126,700 visitors of various social backgrounds and age groups.
In Morocco, the 22nd edition of Casablanca International Publishing and Book Fair (Salon International de l’Edition et du Livre (SIEL), held in 2016 where the UAE was the guest of honour, witnessed 370,000 visitor turnout, with the participation of 686 publishers from 44 countries exhibiting 100,000 titles of all genres. Unlike Libya, which has not yet been able to emerge from a whirlpool of unrest, Tunisia has continued to organise its annual book fair, which is 10 editions older than those of Algeria and Morocco. The 32nd edition of Tunisia’s book fair, witnessed 237 publishers from 23 countries.
These fairs are held under the patronage of the presidents of the three countries. They feature cultural, literary and intellectual events attended by people from the five continents. The fairs recognise excellence in the fields of writing and publishing; with prizes like the Assia Djebar Novel Prize in Algeria, as well as prizes for novels, poetry and children’s books, the Publisher Prize in Tunisia, and the Book Prize in Morocco.
Readers thirsty for books
Speaking to Nasher, a number of publishers from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, and UAE praised the Maghreb reader’s enthusiasm for books of different genres, commending them for keeping track of the new publications in the Arabic- and French-speaking regions. Fatima Al Boudi, Director of Egypt-based Dar Al-Ain Publishing House, says that despite some administrative obstacles, she does not miss the chance to participate in the three book fairs in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. “There, we can meet an elite group of intellectuals, authors and literary figures as well as thousands of readers hungry for books,” she says.
In parallel, culture ministries, publisher syndicates and civil societies organise local and national book fairs throughout the year, where local publishers meet readers visiting from non-metropolitan areas to buy books. Ahmed Madi, head of Algeria’s National Book Editors’ Syndicate, acknowledges that demand for books in non-metropolitan cities is bigger than in Algiers, saying, “This is what we notice in the annual fairs held in Batna, Constantine, Tlemcen and Oran.”
This also applies to several Moroccan cities, such as Tetouan Tangier, Meknes, Taroudant and Guelmim, where readers are thirsty for more, according to the Moroccan Poet Abdellatif Laâbi. Unlike metropolitan cities that pay attention to developing mostly economic and tourist activities, these cities exhibit a deep interest in enriching cultural life.
In Mauritania, the annual book fair held by the National Library of Mauritania, provides a great opportunity for members of the publishing community – writers, publishers, distributors and librarians – to meet, network, share ideas and experiences, as well as allow Mauritian readers access to publications at generous discounts, which competing publishers offer.
Government support for books
In most of the Maghreb countries, government support for books is expressed through subsidies for consumer products and materials. In Algeria, the Ministry of Culture’s National Fund for Arts and Literature provides support for about 1,000 titles annually. According to an official source, the Moroccan government offers financial support amounting to 7,380,000 dirhams for 459 projects carried out by 71 beneficiaries, including 35 publishers and 18 book societies. The Moroccan public support, which accounts for 60% of book production costs, includes review, proofreading, layout and printing tasks, as well as purchase of copyrights, including translation.
However, the official support failed to solve a number of problems impeding readers’ access to the book. The five Maghreb countries still have a poor distribution network, and readers can get books only through fairs and public and university libraries.
Publishing beyond borders
The domestic challenges facing book distribution inside each country go beyond borders. There are no legal customs or trade mechanisms to facilitate bringing books from a country to other Maghreb countries. A Maghreb writer can read books written by his colleagues in other countries only when an Arab or French publisher participating in Maghreb book fairs prints those works.
This has forced Maghreb writers to resort to Arab and French publishing houses in order to bring their works beyond borders and get wider exposure by making their books available for a larger audience. Some Maghreb writers came to light only when their works were published outside the Maghreb region and won Arab as well as world prizes for them.
The Maghreb region is rich in talents and has a passion for reading, which makes it a lively book market. However, there are internal problems and obstacles that hinder the development of such a great market. There are opportunities for Arab and Western investors to inject investments in this burgeoning cultural environment which constitutes a link between three continents – Asia, Africa and Europe.