16 September 2021 Blogs, Academic, Librarian, Faculty

Appreciating Smaller Publishers: Saqi Books

The story behind one of the leading publishers of books on the Middle East and North Africa

By Bob Nardini, Vice President, Library Services at ProQuest

Editor’s note: this is the latest blog post in a series by Bob Nardini about the critical role of smaller publishers in bringing diverse content to libraries.

Independent publishers share a strength in mission – but they also share the precariousness of running their business. Beyond the necessities of capital, staff, space, and the need to build name recognition from the ground, for a publisher immersed in the Arab world and dedicated to the free flow of ideas – a publisher that grew out of a Middle Eastern, London-based bookstore in 1979, and later opened another branch in Beirut – there might also be hate mail, embargoes, and even smashed windows for displaying Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

That’s part of the remarkable story of Saqi Books.

Saqi’s founders, André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub, fled civil war in Lebanon and, with no experience in the trade, opened a bookstore when they found there was nowhere for London’s Arabic community to buy books in their language. “We were starved of our own culture,” recalls Gaspard’s wife Salwa. In 1983 Saqi began to publish books, in English, from the UK. In 1990 they also became publishers in the Middle East when they established sister company Dar Al Saqi in Beirut – the city where they’d grown up in as childhood friends.

It wasn’t long before Saqi was recognized as a source of foundational works for study of the Arab and wider Muslim world. Beyond the Veil: Male-Female Dynamics in a Muslim Society and The Crusades through Arab Eyes are books both held, for example, by well over 1,000 libraries on OCLC’s WorldCat. More recently, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth showed Saqi’s range with a unique look at early Palestine while reaching the New York Times’ Best Seller list in 2014 and winning praise from the New Yorker as a “riveting biography.” A very different but equally surprising book is this year’s Midnight in Cairo: The Female Stars of Egypt’s Roaring ‘20s, a history that “delivers a place, time and people you’ll wish you’d personally known,” as this TLS reviewer apparently did wish.

Saqi’s list in literature is strong as well. The Things I Would Tell You: British Muslim Women Write was a Guardian Best Book of the Year for 2017. In 2019, Saqi published The Quarter, posthumous stories by Nobel Prize winner Naguib Mahfouz, a giant of Arabic literature.

Another star in the Saqi list is Nawal El Saadawi, feminist author and longtime Egyptian activist, praised by Margaret Atwood and scores of others – a writer once referred to as “the Simone de Beauvoir of the Arab world.” Saqi became her publisher in the 1980s and continued bringing out her books to the end of El Saadawi’s long career, including Zeina, the author’s final novel in 2019 before her death this year. A TLS review of We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers, a Saqi book published just months ago, described this anthology of erotic writing as a book that “elevates self-assertive voices and banishes long-held silences.” A Washington Post review also offered praise for this “eye-opening collection,” a book likely to “shatter some assumptions about gender and sexuality in the Arab world.”

In 2017, one response to the U.S. travel ban was this Saqi book: Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic: Words and Pictures on How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Alien Next Door. Edited by Lynn Gaspard, daughter of André and Salwa, this collection of comics, stories, essays, photographs and graffiti was a Sunday Times Best Humour Book of the Year, “a personal guide to extreme vetting,” as one contributor put it. If this book, and others mentioned above, suggest that Saqi books are likely to be iconoclastic, that would be correct. When a customer asks how to find the banned books section (the store doesn’t have one), Gaspard, who as a child played in the aisles of her parents’ store and today is Saqi London’s publisher, jokes that she then needs to ask which government the reader has in mind.

In some part this taboo-breaking spirit is the legacy of the late co-founder Ghoussoub, a writer, artist, and activist who was “a tour de force in Arab literature and letters,” according to the Guardian’s 2007 obituary. Ghoussoub was a publisher who didn’t avoid topics such as gay and lesbian life, commissioning “a range of titles that few Arab publishers would dare to produce.” In all her work, said the New York Times upon Ghoussoub’s death, she “weaved together elements of her Arab heritage and an avant-garde sensibility to make bold, provocative statements.”

That same sentence could be applied to the company she helped to found, Saqi Books. Today Saqi is among the Arab world’s leading publishers, and the bookstore a landmark for London’s Arab community while a destination for visitors from the world over.

ProQuest is proud to offer Saqi’s print and ebooks on Rialto, OASIS, and LibCentral.

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