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Dar al-Adab. Portrait of a singular publishing house

Portrait

The Lebanese Publishing House Dar al-Adab.

Radical Independence is Part of the Programme

 

«They call us the Suhrkamp of the Arab world», Rana Idriss, publisher of the Beirut based Dar al-Adab Publishing House says not without pride. A little over fifty years ago, her father Dr. Souheil Idriss founded the publishing house which since then publishes Arabic and foreign language fiction, literary studies, political essays and lately also children's- and youth literature. Dar al-Adab's resident authors rank among the most successful writers of the Arab world: Adonis, Elias Khoury, Hassan Daoud, Ahlam al-Mustaghanami and Hanan al-Scheikh. Meanwhile all of them have been translated into numerous languages and have found their way to Western audiences. Also the last two years' winners of the Arabic literature awards are represented in Dar al-Adab's programme: Wassini al-Araj (last year's winner of the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards of Abu Dhabi) and Baha Taher (winner of the International Prize for Arabic Ficion, also known as the „Arab Booker Prize“). To content with publishing the established authors regularly is not sufficient for Dar al-Adab. Just as well it is the policy of the publishig house to present newer, yet unknown voices. As for example young women daring to approach female topics without compromise, thus breaking social taboos with unheard-of implicitness. Badriya al-Bishr from Saudi Arabia and Miral al-Tahawi from Egypt belong to the most exciting representatives of contemporary literature published by Dar al-Adab.

 

The foundation of Dar al-Adab in 1956 was closely tied to the political left of the nineteen fifties and -sixties. The cosmopolitan Beirut at that point in time was a magnet for the intellectual scene of the entire Arabic sphere. Escape to the Lebanese capital, relatively free of censorship and booming economically, stirred many hopes – more than one dreamt of the fulfilment of his boldest fantasies upon arrival in Beirut. In a climate coined by political activism and dogmatism Dr. Souheil Idriss founded his publishing house. Its openly formulated goal was to serve as an organ for the Arabic nationalism. This idea keeps being pursued by Rana Idriss, the founder's daughter, who took over in 1986, although, as she says herself – prefixes have strongly changed since the sixties. „Of late Dar al-Adab tries to open itself politically, but our commitment keeps remaining the same: We  represent the secular left, fight against militarisation and globalisation in terms of the American foreign policy. Also we are interested in the fight for independence of the peoples of the Third World. The struggle of the Palestinians for a state of their own is a central question we are dealing with. We also want to fight against anti-Enlightenment-tendencies, which regrettably keep gaining more and more ground in the Arab world.“

 

The first book published by Dar al-Adab was the novel „Al hay al latini“ („The Latin Quarter“) by Souhail Idriss, who, as one of the first Arabic writers, describes the life of Arabic students in Paris. The clash of different sets of values and lifestyles was a prevailing literary topic already in the early fifties. Since the foundation the programme-policy of Dar al-Adab was aimed at letting male and female authors of the entire Arabic world have their say, as well as translating important works into Arabic. Souhail Idriss, who studied in Paris, was strongly influenced by French culture (incidentally he he is also the author of the perhaps most popular Arabic-French dictionary, al-Manhal, published this year in the 38th edition). During the sixties it were above all the French existentialists who determined the publisher's international programme and who were notedly en vogue among all Arabic intellectuals from Paris to Baghdad.

When Souhail Idriss’ daughter Rana took over the management of the publishing house, the anthropologist trained at the University of New York wanted to incorporate a larger spectrum of literary works into the programme. She introduced the series of Japanese and North American literature, thus putting more emphasis on translations. But for Arabic circumstances licences for foreign literature are markedly expensive and the translation costs considerable (and competent translators a rarity). Considering that a title on the Arabic book market can be sold for an average of no more than five US-dollars, one can easily calculate that there is hardly any money to be made in translation. Talking to the publisher about the subsidies some cultural institutions distribute for translations, she gives account mainly of negative experiences. As measured by the effort she has to make for one application, the deal often is not worth it. Furthermore the choice of subsidised titles is bound to cultural-political calculation of the respective country. And Rana Idriss simply has no inclination to take part in that. „We are radically independent“, she says – and also bears the consequences of that independence with countenance: „We don't know what the future holds for the Arab book market. It is possible that translations get too costly and we will solely publish Arabic texts. What isn't bad at all, as we have enough exciting male and female authors."

 

The periodical Al-Adab, founded yet before the publishing house, also belongs to the publisher. Every voice of distinction of the Arab intellectual scene speaks out in the periodical on literary and political issues. A series completed shortly on the subject of >Censorship in the Arab World<, denouncing grievances in several countries, has shown once more the frontlines the Lebanese publishing house is fighting at, and that on the highest level and with utmost vehemence.

 

 

Contact:

Rana Idriss, Dar al-Adab

P.O. Box 11

4123 Lebanon

kidriss@cyberia.net.lb or d_adab@cyberia.net.lb

www.adabmag.com

Phone: 00961 1 861633   Mobile: 00961 3 86 16 32