My husband, Andre Gaspard, came to London with his childhood friend, Mai Ghoussoub, during the Lebanese civil war. Life in London was very different back in the 1970s to how it is now. The two of them were amazed that there was nowhere in London for the Arab community to gather and buy books in Arabic or about the Middle East. We were starved of our own culture. The shop’s name means “water seller” in English – you could say we were quenching our thirst for the life and the culture we’d left behind, and that was being destroyed by war.
Neither Andre, Mai nor myself had ever had anything to do with the book trade –Andre was a lawyer, Mai had studied Mathematics and I had a degree in Philosophy. Despite all of this, Mai recognised the urgent need for an Arabic language bookshop in London, and believed that we should be the ones to open it.
In 1979, we gathered together the little money we had and opened the very first Arabic bookshop in London. After almost forty years, we are still in the same small shop on Westbourne Grove in Bayswater. The area was very different back then – very run down, and with many more independent shops and restaurants than today. It was a small vibrant community, and everybody working and living on the street was friendly and knew each other. There was a big Arabic-speaking population in London and our customers travelled from across the city to visit the shop. Our customers came from all over the Arab World – there were Lebanese people, Libyans and Iraqis, as well as Gulf Arabs who used to come on the holidays in the summer months.
We started out just selling Arabic books, but later expanded our collection to include English language titles. At present, sixty per cent of our stock is in Arabic and the rest in English. A little while after opening the shop we decided to launch our own publishing company in the UK – Saqi Books, which continues to release urgent and authoritative books about the Middle East and North Africa in the English language. Our aim was twofold: to bring Arab culture to London, but also to inform and inspire readers, both in the UK and the wider Arab world, by publishing writing that would have otherwise remained unavailable. Our first books included Beyond the Veil by Fatema Mernissi, an iconic Moroccan sociologist, feminist and writer, as well as Amin Maalouf’s Crusades through Arab Eyes, which remains one of our bestsellers today. Publishing anything in Lebanon during the 70s and 80s would have been out of the question because of the civil war, but we later went on to open a publishing company in Beirut – Dar al Saqi – which is renowned for publishing progressive and groundbreaking works, and the best in new Arabic literature and non-fiction.
Our bookshop on Westbourne Grove has been the beating heart of the Arab community in London since 1979. There is still a flutter of excitement when new books arrive from Beirut and our regular customers know when best to come browse our new arrivals. I would say that our longevity and success is down to the fact that we have remained completely independent, tolerant and open-minded. The bookshop is a place where people from all walks of life and backgrounds can browse, side by side, exploring an eclectic selection of books in both Arabic and English. We will basically stock any books on Arab culture, politics or ideas that promote a better understanding of Arab society as a whole – this of course includes writings from different political stand points and also books on topics considered taboo in Arab culture, such as homosexuality.
We have found that the more the Middle East is engulfed in crisis and war, the more people want to buy non-political books. Books are escapism. We have particularly large sections on art, fiction, poetry, cookery, and an increasing number of children’s books. Our customers tend not to buy books on Islamic State or Al Qaeda (although we have more than 20 books on IS alone); they come to find a little piece of home or to immerse themselves in the culture and find a book which will give them another perspective of the Middle East. Our window displays are filled with beautiful and colourful books on art and literature; we want to draw new customers into the shop and remind them that Arab culture isn’t limited to political violence!
Admittedly, we have encountered many obstacles along the way and can’t escape politics all together. In previous years we have had difficulty printing and sourcing our stock due to wars, censorship, political instability and export embargoes. For example, our warehouse was burned down during the 2006 war in Lebanon, and for a few months we couldn’t get any books out of the country at all. However, we are resourceful people and will always go out of our way to track down the books that our customers want and need. Times are a little harder now for booksellers so it is important for us to go the extra mile for our customers, both old and new. At the start of every year we used to sell a hundred dictionaries or more, but now we sell fewer, because people prefer to look up vocabulary online. The rise of Amazon and other online retailers has also changed the way people buy books, but our staff are incredibly knowledgeable, friendly and helpful, which is the reason why our customers come back again and again. We’re looking forward to celebrating our fortieth birthday in 2018.
We spoke to Salwa Gaspard, Director at Al Saqi bookshop in London.
Al Saqi Books is at 26 Westbourne Grove, London, W2 5RH.
Telephone: (0)20 7229 8543