Maqam Bookshop: The future of Arabic literature lying in the legacy of London's Al Saqi Bookstore
In 1978 Lebanon was at boiling point after decades of tensions and conflict shaped by colonial influences and demographic tensions.
By this time, the country was rife with Civil War that had divided Beirut, seen mass casualties and Israel invading South Lebanon proceeded by a full-scale invasion of the country a few years later.
"Established in 1978, Al Saqi Books was well-placed to tap into an underdeveloped market of English and Arabic books from SWANA whilst serving as a cultural institution of collective identity as the first Arabic bookstore in London"
War, tragedy and migration were commonplace for the political crisis in Lebanon which had been met with intellectual suppression viewed as a driving force for sectarianism in the country.
It was in this year that two friends resettled in London from Lebanon. Having grown up in the intellectual headiness of pre-war Lebanon, André Gaspard and Mai Ghoussoub looked to mirror the rich exchange of works across The Middle East and North Africa in London.
Established in 1978, Al Saqi Books was well-placed to tap into an underdeveloped market of English and Arabic books from SWANA whilst serving as a cultural institution of collective identity as the first Arabic bookstore in London.
These cosmopolitical ideals of the region were well suited to a London City which was experiencing a rapid influx of immigration from various continents during the decade when Race Riots reflected tensions for young immigrants in London. Al Saqi became a safe space within West London seeing a large regional diaspora creating a vibrant Middle Eastern community in the area.
“Al Saqi Bookshop has been the go-to place for me to send my students as an Arabic teacher to gain deeper insights and a better understanding of the Arabic language and culture,” said Rafa Rejeibi, a Libyan-British Arabic teacher and Intercultural Trainer.
“It is really difficult to imagine the most innovative Arabic bookshop's hallmark falling down. It will be sorely missed,” she added.
Over this time, the bookshop commemorated multiculturalism in London, whilst making accessible books that were banned in the Arab world and shaped by fundamentalism, terrorism and continued conflict.
During the 1980s, André and Mai opened two publishing arms of the book shops; Saqi Books and Dar al Saqi.
While the former published English-language works, the latter institutionalised ties to Lebanon through publishing seminal works of philosophy, cultural thought and social theory in Arabic from Beirut.
This was the beginning of multi-award-winning publicists in the Arab world, also serving as a platform for original works by leading regional authors who faced suppression in their own countries.
In doing so, for 30 years Al Saqi Books became a cultural hub for Arab identity in London and wider Europe while platforming underrepresented authors and supporting intellectual freedoms in Lebanon and wider SWANA.
Yet, 44 years on, Al Saqi co-founder, Salwa Gaspard, announced that Al Saqi would close its doors for the final time on December 31, 2022.
As Salwa Gaspard told al-Jazeera: “I read somewhere that two-thirds of UK residents are cutting down on non-essential stuff, and books and the cinema count as non-essential,” she said. “Recreational items are now available from the comfort of one’s home, whether that is buying a digitised book or renting a movie”
The economic fallout of COVID-19, high shipping costs and the UK’s exit from the European Union have compounded together to make the future of Al Saqi’s physical store untenable.
As Salwa lamented “My husband, also a co-founder feels like he is losing a child. But have you seen what London is like these days? It’s too much.”
It feels notable that the characteristics of a multicultural city that drew Gaspard and Ghoussoub to London 44 years ago have been eroded by decades of austerity, rising living costs in the UK, intense gentrification and widening polarisation and hostility to the UK’s migrant community.
As their website states, “The inclusion of minority authors among our lists helps, we hope, to demolish cultural barriers that might otherwise reinforce political or geographic ones.”
Yet it is exactly the UK’s newfound hardened barriers that have exacted the closure of the Al Saqi bookstore.
Yet, for Mohammad Masoud, the Palestinian bookseller, who worked at Al Saqi bookshop for two years until its final day, it's time for a new beginning.
For the past two years, Al Saqi Bookshop has been the 28-year-old’s home, “Al Saqi will always be there in my heart, and I will never forget those beautiful years I worked for Al Saqi,” Mohammad explains.
"Maqam was created because we need a replacement not only for Al Saqi but for all the other bookshops and culture centres that closed down and left the country. London needs a safe space not only for Arabic books but also to capture and save what's left of what represents us. The legacy I am trying to save is within us"
Mohammad moved to London from Jordan in 2020 but he never believed he would have the pleasure to work with this iconic bookshop, “it was a dream come true.”
By buying up Al Saqi’s leftover stock and supplementing it with his own substantial collection, Mohammad is hoping to build a new home for Arabic readers in London.
Under the name Maqam, the project aims to launch a new locally-owned independent bookshop and community space.
Maqam aims to focus on the voices of the younger generations of writers and readers who have been marginalised and excluded in the publishing industries of the SWANA region.
“Maqam was created because we need a replacement not only for Al Saqi but for all the other bookshops and culture centres that closed down and left the country. London needs a safe space not only for Arabic books but also to capture and save what's left of what represents us. The legacy I am trying to save is within us," he explains.
"Maqam aims to focus on the voices of the younger generations of writers and readers who have been marginalised and excluded in the publishing industries of the SWANA region.”
To accomplish this ambitious goal, Mohammad launched a fundraising campaign in January 2023 that he hopes will help raise the much-needed capital for the space, and is appealing to all lovers of Arabic culture and language to donate.
The focus is to continue the legacy of an Arabic cultural space, as a cultural, educational and media production space, Maqam will be a space for sharing ideas and stories, and enjoying literature through hosting reading groups, Hakawati sessions and cultural events exploring Arabic calligraphy and embroidery.
“Maqam means sacred space, Maqam always means a safe space, where people feel like home”
Masoud is not naïve about the challenges his vision faces, “I created this crowdfunding campaign because I wanted to include everyone in Maqam, I want to raise awareness with this campaign. Our beautiful language, culture and identity are in danger.”
For Masoud, the word maqam is synonymous with the future space he wants to create, “Maqam means sacred space, Maqam always means a safe space, where people feel like home.”
Mohammad is determined to continue the legacy of Al Saqi but also distinguish his enterprise as something that aims specifically to represent the current experiences of the younger generation in London today. “It's important to have a place that reflects our heritage, people who are interested in SWANA will see us far from just politics or oil or religion, we need to move away from portrayals of Arabs as a backwards, regressive conservative Islamist monolith," he says.
“We have many obstacles in front of us and we know it won't be easy to gather £90,000 but with this amount not only we will save the Arabic culture, but we are also taking it to another level.
“Maqam will be a home for people who love the Arabic language and are searching for belonging. This will be a space for everyone regardless of background to engage with Arabic literature no matter how much or little they know of it, a space where both Arabs and non-Arabs can come to learn, relearn, and enjoy this wonderful and rich language.”
Mohammad maintains his deep optimism about the future of an Arabic bookstore in the UK. “The younger generation doesn’t have a lack of interest in Arabic literature; it's more that our lived experiences vary greatly from the older generation and there is currently a deficit of literature that tackles the feelings and emotions of our generation. They need a place that understands them and caters for them.”
Al Saqi’s two publishing houses, under the same name, will continue to operate in London and Beirut respectively and the crowdfunding page for Maqam can be seen here.
Aisha Kherallah is a freelance journalist and researcher focused on media freedom and cultural outputs in the MENA region. She holds an MSc in Conflict Studies from the London School of Economics and also works for the Rory Peck Trust.
Tom Critchley is a researcher and tutor in the Design Department of Goldsmiths University, London. He has been developing Zaatari Radio since 2017 and also works for Concrete Jungle Foundation.