Publishing’s Poetic Discovery of late Author’s Damascus Library

In March 2015, a part of the private library of the Saudi author and novelist Abd Al-Rahman Munif (1933-2004) was burglarized in his old residence in Damascus. The theft took place while his wife, Suad Kawadri, was abroad. Months later, the incident was made public through a statement for the press, followed by a number of interviews.

Installation view of the exhibition, "Disappearances. Appearances. Publishing.", Photo by: Ela Bialkowska, Index of the private library of Abdul-Rahman Munif and a poster presents a story of a publishing house, Fehras Publishing Practices, Villa Romana, Florence, 2017
Installation view of the exhibition, "Disappearances. Appearances. Publishing.", Photo by: Ela Bialkowska, Index of the private library of Abdul-Rahman Munif and a poster presents a story of a publishing house, Fehras Publishing Practices, Villa Romana, Florence, 2017

Estimates of how much the loss was worth differed from one interview to the next. However, the robbery held some symbolic value: by making the theft known, Suad Kawadri shifted the issue from the private to the public sphere.

Meanwhile, the bustle created by the Arab media had captured the attention of a Syrian trio today living in Berlin: Kenan Darwich, Omar Nicolas and Sami Rustom. The three have long thought of setting Fehras Publishing Practices (fehraspublishingpractices.org), “an artists collective and publishing house founded as a response to mounting questions concerning the history and presence of art and publishing in the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and the diaspora,” Fehras explains in an interview with Eastwest.eu.

The Fehras (from the Arabic for “index”) studio was located in East Berlin, in the historic place of non-profit, self-organising art association Flutgraben e.V. . And they decided to devote their first project to documenting and cataloguing Munif’s private collection, with the aim of working on a publication. The collective - three young men with common interests in typography, archives and art - was to restore the intellectual value of the late author in an effort to create discursive alternatives to a history of lost rubble. Meanwhile, the tragedy of the Syrian civil war had shaken the souls of everybody.

From its small Berlin studio, Fehras started asking a photojournalist “to document all parts of Munif’s private library in agreement with his wife, Suad Kawadri. No-one from the collective has visited the library in Damascus yet but we have been in communication with Mrs. Kawadri,” explains Fehras, who knew already the works of Munif, the author of fifteen novels and a number of non-fiction projects.

Fehras’ work on indexing Munif’s library finished in February 2017, documenting 9119 books in 407 photographs. An exhibition and a symposium entitled “Disappearances. Appearances. Publishing” were then organized in May 2017 in - and with the support of - Villa Romana, in Florence. The exhibition presented four large posters with an index of the publications documented and cataloged in Munif’s library, pictures of the books on the shelves, and a table with general statistics of the volumes and a timeline of the changes that had taken place, reflecting the development of the publishing scene in several Arab countries across the decades.

Overall, this book collection not only reflects Munif’s interests over the time but also significant changes in the Arab publishing industry occurred until his death, in 2004, like for example, the growth of private-sector publishers across the Arab region at the turn of 1990’s, which impacted the status of the twin capitals of Arab publishing, Beirut and Cairo.

Abd Al-Rahman Munif’s Library

Munif was a Saudi citizen brought up in Amman, Jordan. He has travelled extensively during his life, both for his studies in the field of oil economics, but also in exile due to political changes occurring at that time. He lived in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad, Kuwait City, Amman, Paris, Tokyo and Belgrade before settling down in Damascus, where he had a residence in which he accumulated a collection of almost 10,000 volumes over the years.

“Until the Six-Day War in June 1967, Munif was active in many political organizations, but the Arabs' defeat by Israel encouraged him to turn to literature as a means of confrontation,” Fehras adds. In 1963 he had been stripped of the Saudi citizenship and moved to Baghdad.

A knowledge-production movement, focused on publications (books, newspapers, magazines and radio programs), marked these historical events and Munif’s life. He began writing in the 1970s, after leaving his job with the Iraqi ministry, and moved to Damascus, removing himself from a regime he opposed.

In Europe Munif became popular after publishing Sharq al-Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean, 1975), the story of a political activist who is tortured in prison in an unnamed country (in Italian A Est del Mediterraneo, Jouvence, 1994): the book was clearly denouncing the violations that were taking place in a (not so) unknown country in the East Mediterranean. Munif wrote essentially of oil and prison because he believed that since the appearance of oil it had broken the balance between man and the environment, as he told the Italian daily il Manifesto in an interview dated 1992, as quoted in the introduction by Isabella Camera d’Afflitto of the first volume of Munif's monumental work called Cities of Salt (1984).

In his life he was awarded major literary awards, such as in Dubai in 1992 and in Cairo in 1998, where he was acclaimed as the greatest Arab novelist.

Unfortunately, the unhappy fate of Munif’s personal library is not an isolated case. From Beirut to Damascus, from Baghdad to Cairo and to Algiers, there are media reports about the public or private libraries of intellectuals, writers, and publishers being relocated, sold or destroyed. An example is Al-Mutanabbi Street in Baghdad, which is considered one of the oldest streets in the region for book selling and archives, which was tragically destroyed by a suicide bomber in 2007 and then reopened after one year of repair.

The story of Al-Mutanabbi Street, as well as its role in Munif’s (sometimes obsessive) practice of collecting books, is recounted by his wife Souad Kawadri in an essay published, among others, in the volume in Arabic and English entitled When the Library was Stolen (distributed by Beirut-based Dar Al-Tanweer in the Arabic region), which Fehras finally released (LINK) as the latest act in its dissemination practice. This project was funded by Senate Department for Culture and Europe Berlin, Villa Romana in Florence, and Mophradat Brussels.

“When the Library was Stolen” is the first initiative in Fehras’ ongoing project, Series of Disappearances. The collection of published materials examines the relocation of knowledge in-and outside of the region due to various economic, political and social changes.

@ShotOfWhisky

From the private library of Abd Al-Rahman Munif, Photo Nr. 304 Photo by: Al-Mahdi Shubat, Damascus 2015; On behalf of Fehras Publishing PracticesFrom the private library of Abd Al-Rahman Munif, Photo Nr. 304 Photo by: Al-Mahdi Shubat, Damascus 2015; On behalf of Fehras Publishing Practices

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