Something in the water: the compelling tale of London's oldest Arabic bookstore
In our continuing series of inspiring life stories across continents, Al Saqi Books is a British institution with its own page in history
Sometimes a bookshop is as much about the building where it is housed as the bindings and words on the shelves.
As London's favourite repository of Arabic literature, Al Saqi Books has nestled for decades comfortably in a converted former theatre almost as extraordinary outside as the tales within the volumes for sale.
The facade is inconceivably elaborate, covered in arches, niches in spandrels and sculpted pilasters intermingled with carved fauna and flora, and figures of angels playing instruments, heralding what might lay in store.
Busts of writers Shakespeare, Milton, Bacon as well as painters Rubens and Raphael sit in circular panels on high observing the milling of Arab language readers below.
The melange makes Saqi an experience all to its own. Founded in 1979 by childhood friends André Gaspard and the late writer Mai Ghoussoub, who made London their home after they left the violence of the civil war in Lebanon, it is a means of Middle Easterners maintaining contact with their culture.
They were both Trotskyists who became involved in humanitarian efforts in the early years of the conflict until Ghoussoub lost an eye while attempting to evacuate a wounded Palestinian to hospital.
She sought treatment in Paris, and then settled in London, where she quickly realised that there weren’t any Arabic language bookshops, and suggested to Mr Gaspard that they open one.
In the London store, they would be joined by Mr Gaspard’s wife, Salwa, and the three freethinkers then single-mindedly set up a publishing house to print English language books on the MENA region after growing frustrated at the lack of works available.
As Lynn Gaspard, the daughter of André and Salwa, explains, none of them had a publishing background, but all had been avid readers to obtain information and "intellectual escape" in troubled times in Lebanon.
Ms Gaspard points out the yellow and blue sign above the shop door, featuring the image of a man with a camel leather bag on his back bending down to two children, as the mission statement.
“The word Saqi means water-seller in Arabic,” Ms Gaspard says. “If you know our logo from our bookshop, you’ll see this. So it’s water, life, knowledge. That’s the whole meaning of Saqi.”
As the Lebanese war raged in the Eighties, Saqi, along with the Kufa Gallery next door, became a cultural hub for Middle Easterners, where Arabs, many of whom were in exile, would congregate and share their thoughts. From the Iraqi opposition to established and rising intellectuals, it was a space where differing opinions could be aired without fear.
For Salwa, in particular, however, it has long been a source of pride that most agreed at least in thinking of the small shop as a home from home - and still do.
In the case of the young Lynn, who spent a substantial part of her childhood there, it was even more so. “Saqi’s my home,” Ms Gaspard tells The National. “Saqi’s much more than just a business to me. It symbolises so much more than that. I literally grew up in Saqi as a child,” the 37-year-old says, with a laugh.
“After school, the minibus would drop me off at the bookshop and I would play in the basement,” she recalls. “My sister and I would play hide and seek among all the books, the shelves bursting full with Arabic and English language books. It was a lot of fun, and a really exciting time. The bookshop was thriving.”
Ms Gaspard, who eventually took over the publishing arm, said that one of the first books printed was The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, by the Lebanese-born French author Amin Maalouf. It would be joined on the shelves by scores of others over the next decades, on subjects as varied as politics and Arab art to cookery and travel.
The building was long owned by Dr Mohamed Makiya, a well-regarded Iraqi architect who set up the neighbouring Kufa Gallery where Saqi’s lively promotional events were held.
“It was a space where exhibitions, conferences and talks were held, and the Iraqi opposition at the time was invited to hold their meetings.
“In the Eighties, Saqi and the Kufa together became this incredible cultural institution for Middle Easterners in London, around the UK, but also internationally – as it is today, though without the Kufa Gallery unfortunately.”
The point of Saqi isn't to be controversial. It's to encourage a free flow of ideas and knowledge
Five years after the Saqi imprint was launched, her father returned to Beirut to establish a sister outfit, Dar Al Saqi, with the remit of printing seminal titles of philosophy, Western thought and social theory, as well as original fiction by Arab authors often finding it hard to be published elsewhere. It has since become one of the region’s most prestigious publishing houses.
In 2008, Saqi was honoured at a 25th anniversary event at Kensington Town Hall, attended by 600 people to celebrate an award given by Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture to Mr Gaspard for his contribution to culture in the country.
The successes in London and Beirut have come in spite of many challenges over the years. Aside from the usual financial ups and downs associated with running an independent business, some have been of the more unusual variety: hate mail, death threats, smashed windows at the time of the Salman Rushdie fatwa and again during the invasion of Iraq, listings on Al-Qaeda websites, and even a bomb dropped on a warehouse in Beirut by an Israeli war plane in 2006.
Ms Gaspard says that the Arabic language department is the most successful, and many customers come from around the world to find books that are unavailable in their native countries. The running joke at the shop, she says, is that there should be a separate “banned books” section.
“The point of Saqi isn’t to publish controversial works or to be controversial in any way,” she wants to make clear. “It’s to encourage a free flow of ideas and intellectual endeavours and knowledge, which is so essential because often back home and even today if there’s an opposing view, it will be censored.”
She and her parents have long been motivated by the simple concept of “good” books. First and foremost, she says, it has to have beautiful writing if it’s a literary offering. For non-fiction, the emphasis is on rigorous, scholarly work.
“We are a progressive publishing house but Saqi does not by any means only publish left-leaning books,” Ms Gaspard says. “We are open. We will publish works that we don’t necessarily agree with, whose main arguments may not be in line with our own personal ones. As long as the work is intellectually stimulating and well backed up and adds value to the scholarship then that’s a good book to my mind.”
Much of Saqi’s intended publishing programme for 2020 was postponed to this year because of Covid-19. Though, bolstered by a strong performance - the best in seven years - before coronavirus, the business began the pandemic in an enviable position.
“These are unprecedented times,” Ms Gaspard says. “We're now relying solely on online and ebook sales, both of which have seen a big increase since spring last year.”
All the authors, all the artists, they are the heroes. We are custodians. It's a privilege for us
She credits the loyalty of Saqi’s clientele for sustaining hope. They are a great support, she says, and lists among them royals who fill their suitcases with books to take back home, friendly Notting Hill celebrities, locals and tourists both Arabic and Westerners alike, universities and embassies.
“And then we have all our authors, all the artists; they’re the heroes,” Ms Gaspard says. “ We are custodians. It’s a privilege for us to work on their works and to help disseminate them internationally. They’re entrusting us with their babies. It’s our job to do the best we can."
Despite a childhood spent on the shop floor, Ms Gaspard never intended to have a career within the family business. Instead, she had wanted to work in international development to “change the world”. At some point, though, the ink had entered her blood.
“I fell in love with Saqi,” she says. “I loved what we represented, I loved the people, I loved what they were doing. And I realised that I’m much more comfortable with this sort of influence because I think you can have an important impact on your community and the wider culture through books."
Now Ms Gaspard sees Saqi's role in easing insular mentalities and bridging the widening divides. There is, she concedes, still a lot of work to be done, and it encourages her to do more.
"It proves how important outfits like Saqi are," she says. "All these minority publishers or cultural endeavours, we have to keep going. We can’t lose faith.
“A really gentle way to encourage positivity in our communities is to publish a good book, a life-changing or life-affirming - or whatever it may be - book."
Ms Gaspard believes that through literature, Arabic or otherwise, readers can find personal enrichment, both in terms of enjoyment but also in imperceptibly having their outlooks broadened. Within the pages, she says, lies the opportunity to be enlightened.
“It’s a window into another culture,” she says, “and so, without even noticing, your mind is opening.”
So it is that Saqi, the water-seller, will continue to slake a thirst for knowledge, a more crucial figure in the marketplace now than since the sign first went up above the door.
Updated: January 26, 2021 03:46 PM