In a Faded Literary Capital, Efforts at a Revival

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KHARTOUM, Sudan -- On the corner of an old colonial building in downtown Khartoum sits the city's oldest bookstore, Sudan Bookshop. It was established in 1902, three years after Britain established control over Sudan, and for a long time it was a magnet for the city's civil servants, politicians and intellectuals.

Today, however, it is a ghost of itself. It is dusty, cold and empty of buyers, and it displays books published mostly in the '70s and '80s.

Sudan Bookshop's manager, El Tayeb Abdel-Rahman, 69, still comes to work every morning at 8:30. Dressed in a chic suit and tie, he awaits customers who rarely come.

"We used to order a shipping container of books every month or two," he recalled sadly. "But now no one reads anymore."

These are hard times for bookstores everywhere, of course. And as in other book-loving corners, Sudanese are quick to lament that technology and the Internet have been turning eyes away from pages and toward screens.

But there is more at work here, in a city long famous as a big market for Arabic writers. Books and reading are embedded profoundly in Khartoum's self-image and the country's history, and there is growing worry that the collapse of book culture is a direct mirror of the country's overall decline.

Most Sudanese are more concerned with bread than books, and for good reason. Years of war, drought and economic privation have left deep marks. A once prestigious education system has crumbled, and the number of bookstores in Khartoum has fallen with it.

That sense of urgency and loss is driving a new wave of activism, with its sights on reviving Khartoum's reputation as a literary city.

"We want to bring people back to books," said Abdullah Al-Zain, 58, who started a project with friends called Mafroush -- a Sudanese Arabic word meaning displayed.

In a monthly showcase held every first Tuesday, participating used-book sellers come to downtown Khartoum's Etinay Square and lay their books on the ground over cloth sheets or flattened carbon boxes.

Hundreds of book lovers, including students, artists and writers, showed up on a recent afternoon, some gazing over the sprawl of covers, some flipping pages attentively. Others arrived with more books for the display.

"You see, we don't like to call them 'used' books -- rather, 'rebated,' " Mr. Al-Zain said.

Al-Mutasim Hassan, 25, a graduate student, came searching for philosophy books. "I think Mafroush is a creative endeavor, and you meet other readers," he said.

Mr. Hassan holds himself apart from others in his generation who think "Facebook and chat are the only expressions of progress," he said.

"I find myself, however, that when I read a book, I feel alive," he added.

For many who are trying to revive reading here, the Internet is turning into an ally.

"The Internet is not necessarily an enemy of books," Mr. Al-Zain said. "It is so only for those who want it to be such. We use the Internet to promote our programs."

Across town, in Khartoum's Green Square, another group is also trying to encourage Sudanese to return to books.

Hundreds of Sudanese youths met in the square on another afternoon, each with a book in hand. For the next few hours, they sat on the grass and either individually read books quietly, or joined a discussion circle with others.

"We want to revive the habit of reading in public spaces," said Raghda El-Fatih, 18, a volunteer with Education Without Borders, a group that called for a "Khartoum Is Reading" day.

Education Without Borders grew out of a discussion between two college graduates who wanted to tackle the many problems facing education in Sudan. They started a Facebook page, and now have thousands of members.

"One member suggested organizing a day for reading," said Wisal Hassan, 25, one of the group's founders. So far, the group has organized two reading days, including one that coincided with the United Nations' World Book Day.

"It's been a great success," Mr. Hassan added.

A sense of Sudanese tradition infuses the revival efforts, and those of writers trying to fuel them.

"The founders of the nationalist movement were avid readers," said one writer, Kamal El Gizouli. "In the '30s, they established reading groups and they used to exchange books with each other."

Back then, Mr. El Gizouli continued, Khartoum was having a cultural renaissance that included the publication of the first Sudanese magazine, Al-Fajr. The weekly train that arrived from Cairo to the north came with newspapers, magazines and books, both in Arabic and in English, which many Sudanese eagerly waited for.

The generation that followed inherited the love of reading, and built on it. "The '60s was a period of optimism, ideological debates, and people were self-motivated," Mr. El Gizouli said.

That period created an eclectic pantheon of writers revered in Khartoum, where Arabic authors like the native Sudanese Tayeb Salih, the Egyptian Abbas El-Aqqad and the Syrian Nizar Qabbani became vital inclusions on readers' lists that also included writers like Chinua Achebe, George Bernard Shaw and Ernest Hemingway.

At the time, Khartoum had nearly 400 bookstores, publishers say, including one, the five-story Al-Dar Al-Sudaniya for Books, that once boasted of being the largest bookstore in the Arab world.

It survives. But others are struggling.

"Business has dropped by 90 percent in the past 20 years," said Fahmi Iskander, 39, the manager of Marawi Bookshop, another historic and family-run store not far from Al-Dar Al-Sudaniya. "There have been days when daily sales were the equivalent of 10 U.S. dollars."

Mr. Iskander came back to Sudan from England to run Marawi in 2005 after his father died, he said.

"Books by Egyptian writers dominated the market, but we also had translated novels, like 'Lolita' -- which is now banned," he said, laughing.

While a significant market still exists here for local writers, high-cost and low-quality printing, censorship and copyright issues have limited the reach of locally published books. And it is harder and harder to find imported books in Khartoum, Mr. Iskander said.

"Custom fees and the currency exchange rate of the Sudanese pound to the U.S. dollar are very high," he said. "You wouldn't be able to justify the price of an imported book to a buyer."

But even more troubling to him is an influx of cheaper, but pirated, books from abroad.

"There is more money in the counterfeit books trade than the drug and counterfeit currency trades combined," Mr. Iskander said.

He recalled how one Lebanese publisher had come to Khartoum and asked him why he had stopped ordering books from Beirut. "I took him down the street and showed him a counterfeit copy of one of his books," he said. "He left depressed."

Still, the stalwarts keep on. Back at Sudan Bookshop, Mr. Abdel-Rahman, the dapper manager, said that he had maintained his pride despite tough times.

 "I am working with a loss," he said. "But it would be shameful to close down such an institution." 

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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