Peoples Geography — Reclaiming space

Creating people's geographies

Israel’s other war

by Omayma Abdel-Latif :: 7 – 13 September 2006, Issue No. 811 | Al-Ahram Weekly

A little remarked consequence of Israel’s war on Lebanon is the destruction of culture, Omayma Abdel-Latif writes

The seller at the Lebanon Library, a bookshop in the heart of Al-Hamra Street, Beirut, posed for a moment before answering a question by a customer about a book >entitled The Tragedy of Al-Zahraa, a seminal two-part publication by Jawad Al-Amali. “You know, it will be difficult to find since most of the bookshops in Al-Dahiya district have been flattened by the Israeli war,” she said. “But give me a couple of days to ask, maybe we can find it for you.” Two days later, the answer was a flat no. The reason: Dar Al-Mahjaa Al-Baydaa, the print house that published the book, was razed to the ground by heavy Israeli bombardment of the southern parts of Beirut.

The bookshop is but one of many that faced the same fate. Tens of bookshops have been the target of Israel’s barbaric attacks on Beirut’s southern suburb. The damage inflicted upon what many call here the “cultural zone” of Al-Dahiya — as opposed to the security zone which Israel claimed to be targeting — is visible to Al-Dahiya visitors. Hundreds of books could be seen scattered on the ground, some burnt, some not. Some of the bookshops that were the jewel of Al-Dahiya have completely disappeared turning into grey ashes instead. “This was not just a military war, it was a war against culture as well,” Iskander Habash, cultural editor of daily As-Safir newspaper said.

Indeed, the publishing sector in Lebanon — among the hardest hit by the war — has been the main source that provided the Arab world with the latest publications in all domains of knowledge. There are 35 publishing houses, 10 printing houses as well as tens of bookshops that have disappeared as a result of the Israeli bombardment. According to Mohamed Irani, head of the Publishers’ Syndicate, Al-Dahiya used to produce much of what Lebanon and the Arab world read. “There is complete paralysis in the cultural scene because the majority of those publishing houses and bookshops have been damaged beyond repair. Some have been flattened.” Only an initial assessment of the losses inflicted upon this sector has been produced. Irani says it will take much time before a clearer picture emerges. The syndicate has written to the Arab Publishers’ Union “to put it in the picture about the cultural loss as a result of the war.”

One of the hardest hit publishing houses, Dar Ihyiaa Al-Turath Al-Arabi, is one of the biggest with a wealth of books and equipment worth $20 million. The owner, Hicham Voladkar, said he was documenting losses in order to present them to the Publishers’ Syndicate. Voladkar, who owned three publishing houses in Al-Dahiya, could not hide his shock and anger at the loss of what he said were a collection of “rare manuscripts” that had been the fruit of 45 years of loving labour. “There were a wealth of resources on Arab and Islamic heritage which no one owned except us,” he said.

Dar Al-Mahjaa Al-Baydaa is another bookshop that was hard hit. Its exhibition hall of 500 square metres was reduced to ashes. It once housed thousands of the latest titles from as far as Iran to Algeria, including Jordanian, French and Moroccan titles. “A few days before the war, we had just received the latest titles for display in the new season but now it is all dust,” Ahmed Kharsa, the house owner, said.

The case with Hassan Bazzi owner of Al-Amir House for Culture and Science is equally saddening. Al-Amir has published more than 3,000 titles to date. The most tragic part is Bazzi’s lost archive. “My archive included 62,000 titles. Sometimes Sayid Mohamed Hussein Fadlullah — the prominent Shia leader — used to borrow from me some of the titles he found interesting,” he said dejectedly. The archive included some manuscripts dating back 400 years ago.

Al-Amir publishing house was preparing to participate in the Bint Jbeil Book Fair held every year and that brings together more than 100 Lebanese publishers. Israeli warplanes deliberately targeted the fairground and destroyed it. “There is a moral and cultural loss that far exceeds the material loss,” Bazzi said. “In a way, Israel’s war on Lebanon was also a war on culture and civilisation.”

Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved

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Timely Reminders

"Those who crusade, not for God in themselves, but against the devil in others, never succeed in making the world better, but leave it either as it was, or sometimes perceptibly worse than what it was, before the crusade began. By thinking primarily of evil we tend, however excellent our intentions, to create occasions for evil to manifest itself."
-- Aldous Huxley

"The only war that matters is the war against the imagination. All others are subsumed by it."
-- Diane DiPrima, "Rant", from Pieces of a Song.

"It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there"
-- William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower"