Publishing in the Arab World: A Mixed up Reality and Broad Hopes

By Ehab Elmallah

Translated by Mona Khattab

Publishing issues, private and public, in Egypt and Arab countries, occupy a main part of cultural debates and other areas that are directly or indirectly linked to culture. Writers, publishers and editors form the three angles of a crucial triangle in such discussions that have recently attracted considerable attention. In that respect, the Swiss Arts Council in Cairo, Pro Helvetia, held a discussion panel last September and invited guests working in the field and involved in issues of book publishing. The panel was moderated by publisher Sherif Bakr, owner and manager of Al-Arabi publishing house. The following participated in the discussions:

Journalist and writer Sayed Mahmoud, editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper Al-Kahera; journalist and writer Mohamed Shoeir, editor-in-chief of the monthly magazine A‘lam El-Kotob and the weekly Akhbar Al-Adab; novelist Suheir Al-Musadfa, editor-in-chief of the Gawa’ez series issued by the General Egyptian Book Organization; young writer Bassem Abdel Halim; and, finally, publisher Heba Salama, owner and manager of Salama publishing house.

In addition, after the panelists presented their talks, the following participated in the discussion: Dr. Hebba Sherif, critic, translator, professor of German literature, and then-Head of the Regional Office of Pro Helvetia Cairo; renowned cinema critic Mahmoud Abdel Shakour, and Tunisian novelist Kamal Al-Aydi.

Presenting the Issue

At the beginning, Sherif Bakr presented his view of the problematic relationship between the state publisher and the private publisher and cited examples of current problems. Based on his experience in dealing with international publishing houses, and his numerous visits to book fairs in Europe and Latin America, the state’s role in publishing is an integral part of its overall role and vision in the cultural community. Bakr emphasized that state publishing houses should not compete with private ones, rather their relationship should be complimentary; in other words, state publishers should complete the role played by private publishers. At this point, the urgent polemic question was posed: what role should state publishing play? In other words, the expected role of the state in publishing needs to be more clearly delineated.

Based on his experiences in many countries, Bakr believes that there should be a general cultural structure that is directly managed by the state in certain aspects. However, the state should not impose its authority on the other, larger and broader, aspects, but rather play the role of supporter, and funder, in order to provide total independence for these associations and publishing houses, so they would be able at some point to reach total self-sufficiency, economically and administratively.