Palestinian bookstores, publishers are under threat of extinction

"A nation that doesn't read doesn't exist:" Online sales, e-books and Israeli restrictions on imports all threaten book culture in Palestinian cities.

Dar Al-Shourouk Publishing House, Ramallah, West Bank, July 27, 2022 (photo credit: MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE)
Dar Al-Shourouk Publishing House, Ramallah, West Bank, July 27, 2022

The Popular Bookstore, situated near Nablus’ Old City, has been selling books in the same location for more than five decades. When it was founded, there were only three bookstores in the Palestinian city.

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Khaled Khandakji, the executive director of the bookstore since its inception and an avid reader himself, told The Media Line that Palestinian history books were the most popular item in the 1980s. But as times changed, so did people’s tastes in books.

“The most popular books these days are novels, human development, and religious books,” he says.

Palestinian history through literature

He recalls the numerous times his bookstore was forced to shutter its doors at the orders of the Israeli army.

“Naturally, our resistance to the occupation was through the book. My first concern is to communicate the idea and enlighten minds through books. In my opinion, national culture is very important for every age group from adolescence on up,” Khandakji says.

"Our resistance to the occupation was through the book"

Khaled Khandakji, The Popular Bookstore executive director

He added that a list of prohibited books is regularly handed to him and other bookstores operators. “The occupation affects the bookstores in that you cannot import books printed in countries that object to ‘normalization’; they are confiscated at the crossings,” Khandakji added.

The list of prohibited items exceeds 100 titles per month, he says. “They are banning patriotic books and some political books.”

Khalid Khandakji waits for customers at The Popular Bookstore, in the Old City of Nablus, West Bank, July 27, 2022 (credit: MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE)Khalid Khandakji waits for customers at The Popular Bookstore, in the Old City of Nablus, West Bank, July 27, 2022 (credit: MOHAMMAD AL-KASSIM/THE MEDIA LINE)

“Between the first and second intifadas, repeated closures by the Israeli army, and recently with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, bookstores pushed to diversify the products they sell, adding items such as stationery so that they can survive,” the 60-year-old Khandakji says.

The threat of closing down

His bookstore has been a destination for bookworms for decades. But the threat of closing down constantly hovers over his head, he says, citing dropping revenue. Book publishing and bookstores are struggling to stay afloat in a challenging economy.

“The profit margin barely pays the expenses. Many days we don’t sell anything all day. I thought one day to turn this bookstore into a restaurant; I also want to live a decent life. I have responsibilities. But I quickly changed my mind.”

A host of factors are leading to the decline of bookstores, including a turbulent economy and readers buying books online.

Rogina Salem, a university student in her third year of business administration studies, told The Media Line that she enjoys books about diverse topics. She switched to buying books online, or to e-books, to satisfy her love of reading.

“Finding a book online is much easier and faster. All the difficulties of dealing with transportation and the exhaustion of going to the bookstore are over. I find buying books online much more comfortable.”

Social media to the rescue

But The Popular Bookstore is refusing to disappear, and it’s putting social media to work in an effort to survive.

“Yes, we have had a book delivery service throughout the West Bank since 2014, and in order to encourage people to buy books, we pay the delivery fee,” says Khandakji.

Khandakji refuses to give in, insisting it’s not the time to turn the last page in his book.

“I am proud that my nephew opened a bookstore called Uncle Saleh; my son opened a publishing house, as well. The whole family works in the field of culture. My wish is to establish an empire of books and open libraries for readers free of charge and place them in all public transportation stations. Travelers take the book in Nablus to read and return it when they arrive in Ramallah. God willing, I will do it,” says Khandakji.

Another casualty

To the south of Nablus in the city of Ramallah, one of the leading Palestinian publishing houses is contemplating shutting its doors after more than two decades in business.

It’s another causality of a bad economy, tight profit margin, and a downturn in readership.

Khader AlBiss, manager of Dar Al-Shourouk Publishing House, told The Media Line it may be writing its last chapter.

“The political and economic situation is one of the main reasons. For many people, a book is an afterthought when thinking about the family budget. Two months ago, we started seriously thinking that this year would be our last. We cannot pay the rent. This is an enterprise that cost millions but is collapsing. We do not have the ability to continue,” says AlBiss.

Burdened with high taxes and import duties, coupled with competition from illegal publishers, traditional bookstores are under threat.

“I suffer as a publishing house that deals only with original copies from pirated and forged books. There is book theft, copyright infringement, and copyright theft,” AlBiss says.

Contrary to popular belief, he says, online bookstores contribute to sales in his bookstores.

“Technology has helped inform people about new releases,” AlBiss says.

For many book lovers, there is nothing like holding a physical book in hand. Books are meant to be touched. Turning a page instead of swiping one matters to a lot of folks.

“There is still a large segment of people who like the feel of paper. The paper book has a different taste and flavor. Smell the smell of paper and have a little ink on your fingers from the heart of the pages,” he says.

A handful of publishing houses and major bookstores are scattered around the Palestinian territories. AlBiss can’t bear the idea of not being around anymore. He complains, as do many in the business, of a lack of official, or private, support.

“It’s heart-wrenching, frankly, but we are unfortunately approaching closing very soon. There are nights I can’t sleep. I feel it is part of my duty to be responsible for Palestinian culture.”

A project like this one should be “forbidden to collapse and disappear. Palestinian publishing houses should remain present to highlight Palestinian literary work abroad. The Palestinian narrative needs it. This is the role of the publishing house,” AlBiss says.

Former Palestinian Higher Education Minister Sabri Saidam, an avid reader, told The Media Line he is “saddened” by the downfall of the bookstores.

“A nation that doesn’t read is a nation that doesn’t exist. The demise of books would mean the demise of knowledge,” he says.