TUNIS—Despite the low average pace of reading in the Arab world—just a quarter of a page or six minutes per year, according to an Arab Thought Foundation report—many Arab cities still celebrate annual book fairs. The one here in Tunis has just wrapped up.
The 33rd edition of the book fair, called “We Read in Order to Live Twice,” was attended by 748 publishing houses from 29 Arab and foreign countries, including 97 participants from Tunisia itself, with about 100,000 titles displayed
“We need the book fair more than ever before to understand concepts and find solutions that will help us in our democratic transition,” said Essam El-Metousi, a university professor at Manouba University and a member of the Higher Education Committee in parliament. El-Metousi added that the current edition of the book fair enjoys a great diversity in terms of the number of participating publishing houses and books they offer. “It is something we missed in previous periods, where many books were excluded, replaced by more religious books,” he said.
The most notable countries participating in the book fair were Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Algeria, Libya, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Palestine, Sudan, Kuwait, France, China, Argentina, Iran, Senegal, United Kingdom, and Italy. The fair also had a selection of publications from Columbia University, in the United States.
“The book fair is an opportunity to publish and distribute academic books on a wider scale, especially knowing that Tunisian academic books are needed by many non-Tunisian academics,” said Hadia El-Riahi, a university professor at at the University of 9 April and the manager of the Humanities and Social Sciences hall at the fair.
According to El-Riahi, the university has published over 35 new academic books in geography, history, sociology, and sciences this year.
Aisha El-Huthiri, professor of philosophy at the Higher Institute of Islamic Civilization, in Tunis, agreed on the importance of the book fair in promoting academic books, especially as “their prices are often lower than those of other books.”
But it’s not just the low prices that create impact. Faisal Al-Sama’i, an official at the Academic Publishing Center, a government institution affiliated to the Ministry of Higher Education, believes that promoting academic books at book fairs encourages university professors to work on new books as it opens the doors for them to a wider audience of readers outside their classrooms.
Some visitors to the book fair had criticisms, though. Dalia Al-Yusufi, a European studies master’s-degree student at Manouba University, complained of the rising price of books despite the fair’s discounts. “Some of the reference books for my course cost between $90 and $180, which is a lot of money for me,” she said.
Firas Ghanem, a law student at Tunis El Manar University, believes that many of the books needed by students were not available at the book fair. “I have looked for legal reference books that I need, but haven’t found them here, even though there are many local and Arabic publishing houses at the book fair,” he said.
Away from academic books, it was clear that few new titles were available amid a wide presence of books translated into Arabic, especially novels and intellectual books.
Alongside the book reviewing events that happen every year, the book fair included prizes in the fields of novels, short stories, poetry, translation, humanities and literature studies, as well as a prize in children’s literature. Kemal Zoghbeni’s novel The Happiness Machine won the prize for the best novel, while Mohammed Fattoumi’s anthology All That You Need is a Moon Flower claimed the short story prize. The Ouled Ahmed Prize for Poetry went to the poet Ridha Labidi’s selection of poems Over a Cold Sidewalk, while the Sadok Mazigh Prize for Translation was won jointly by The History of Tunisia, translated from French by Sadok M’henni, and The Linguistic Works: A Research in Language’s Philosophy, translated by Amira Ghnim. The Literary and Intellectual Research and Studies Prize also went to two books: Yadh Ben Achour’s A Revolution in an Islamic Country: Tunisia, and Baccar Gherib’s Reflecting on the Transition With Gramsci: Tunisia, 2011–2014.
The book fair celebrated the centennial of the late Tunisian writer Bechir Khraief, known as the father of the Tunisian novel, and the poet Mohammed Marzouki, and also commemorated the 150th anniversary of the death of the French poet Charles Baudelaire. Among the critical symposia organized at the book fair were: “The Development of the Arab Novel,” “The Democratic Transition: The Outcome and the Horizons,” “The Novel and Exile,” and “Religion, Politics, and Extremism in the Islamic World.”
Despite the complaints by some that the fair lacked new titles, it appeared to provide plenty of new books to last even the enthusiastic reader until next year.