Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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At a time when bombs, shells and missiles are wrecking so many lives, it may seem frivolous or callous to worry that they also menace books. Look at history, however, and you'll find that a contempt for human beings and a contempt for the culture that they fashion never stand too far apart. In Beirut, this week, some books that powerful but truly callous people in the West really ought to read have just about survived - so far. They are languishing in a warehouse in the pulverised south of the city used by Saqi Books.

Saqi is the outstanding independent house built up by writer and publisher Mai Ghoussoub after her exile from Beirut during the city's previous bouts of strife. In Lebanon, the staff of Dar al Saqi, the London outfit's sister company, are trying to work amid the raids, but also acting as volunteers in centres set up for refugees. As of Wednesday, the warehouse itself still stood.

Always a superb source of books from and about the Arabic world (it publishes, for instance, Naim Qassem's study Hizbullah: the Story from Within), Saqi has broadened its remit lately to create a choice list of international fiction. Recently, under its new Telegram imprint, it has launched a series of short-story anthologies by women writers from around the world. In May, Nancy Hawker's Povidky: Short Stories by Czech Women Appeared. Two further anthologies had been scheduled for August and September.

Since Saqi prints in Lebanon, these are the books that now sit at the mercy of the raining bombs. We could hardly need them more urgently than we do now. They are Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women, edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf; and Qissat: Short stories by Palestinian Women, edited by Jo Glanville. Saqi's staff have managed to spirit a few copies out of the country via Jordan in the past few days. The rest remain in the firing-line, as fragile as the people whose humanity and complexity they celebrate.

In a world with porous frontiers, literature can help outsiders register the depth and dignity of other lives. And it is, perhaps, the widespread refusal in the West to recognise that Arab lives might possess a depth and dignity equal to any other that helps explain why those bombs are still allowed to fall so pitilessly. As Hizbollah's random missiles fall, just as pitilessly if rather more ineptly, on Haifa - the home city of the leading Israeli novelist and social critic A B Yehoshua, whom we profiled here a year ago.

In the West we can hear relatively easily from Yehoshua, as from his remarkable Israeli peers such as David Grossman and Amos Oz. Saqi is trying to ensure that we can attend to voices from elsewhere as well. Don't treat such writers as voices from the "other side", because any literature worth its name should shatter the delusion that any other human side exists, apart from the truly unknown terrain beyond the wall that separates life from death. Saqi deserves to be left to do this quietly heroic job in peace.

Of course, Israeli tanks and warplanes hardly pose the only threat to literary liberty across the Middle East. A toxic tradition of repression and despotism - both political and religious - has suffocated many Arab efforts to make a free literature the herald of a free society. At a festival in Marrakech last autumn, one session posed the question of why we can still read so little Arabic writing in the West. The admirable Iraqi-born editor and author Samuel Shimon promptly replied that it's because Arab governments hate their authors. Historically, many of them have.

That made Lebanon, a far more open space for thought and art than many in the region, such a life-giving exception to the rule. So it must remain. And we should hope that Saqi's warehouse can release its precious cargo soon.

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