Dr Anwar Gargash 'saddened' by loss of London's oldest Arabic bookshop

The diplomatic adviser to the UAE President said Al Saqi Books was an important Arab cultural edifice

Al Saqi Books. Photo: PublishingPerspectives.com
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Dr Anwar Gargash has said he is saddened by the loss of London’s oldest Arabic bookstore after it announced it was closing for good at the end of the year.

The diplomatic adviser to the UAE President said Al Saqi Books was an “important Arab cultural edifice”.

The shop in Bayswater announced on Monday it was shutting after 44 years due to “unsustainable” costs stemming from economic challenges.

The shop, which has been the go-to for Londoners seeking the best fiction and non-fiction from Middle Eastern authors, will close its doors for the final time on December 31.

“I was saddened by the news of the closure of the Saqi Library in London after four and a half decades, an important Arab cultural edifice in London that gave a lot to the Arabic book," Dr Gargash tweeted.

He added that visits to the bookstore had been "part of my personal story".

The store overcame various setbacks in the past, including smashed windows during the Second Gulf War and after the publishing of Salman Rushdie's controversial novel The Satanic Verses, but rising costs have proved too much.

Salwa Gaspard, owner and director of Al Saqi Books, told The National on Monday that the price of sourcing products from overseas had been creeping up, placing the shop under mounting pressure.

“The economic situation in the UK is not the only problem,” she explained. “We used to get our books from Arab countries and it’s become more and more expensive.

“We cannot continue as it is; it’s not sustainable."

In the past, the shop faced censorship crackdowns. It also had its windows smashed by activists who opposed its decision to stock certain books. The business also suffered heavily due to a bombing of its warehouse in Lebanon and a naval blockade during the 2006 war there.

In the summer of last year, the bookshop’s basement was filled with water during flash floods in parts of the UK capital. A crowdfunding campaign to repair the damage raised more than £15,000 ($18,300) in only two days, attracting support from the likes of Mary Beard, a Wolfson History Prize-winning author.

At the time, she praised Al Saqi Books as “a great bookshop and publisher at the forefront of opening up high-quality books about the Middle East and North Africa”.

Ms Gaspard said the recent economic turmoil blighting Lebanon made sourcing books “all but impossible” because prices had increased dramatically.

“Publishers have had to raise them to stay in business as paper and shipping have effectively doubled in cost,” she said. “Another factor is the exchange rate, which is no longer favourable to us — we used to pay in US dollars.”

She said the cost-of-living crisis in the UK heaped further pressure on the shop as running costs became too high.

Updated: December 06, 2022, 11:31 AM