Syria's Samar Haddad: ‘Books are freedom and reading is what frees us’

Inside Syria's Dar Atlas publishing house, which has survived time, war and crises. Image published by Syria Untold.

This article was first published by Syria Untold on April 22, 2022. An edited version is republished as per an agreement with Global Voices.

At the helm of the prominent Dar Atlas publishing house in Damascus is Samar Haddad. Since the 1950s, Dar Atlas has published, among other things, what Haddad describes as “beautiful books” both inside and out, despite wars and crises.

In an old building just off of al-Abed Street in Damascus, Samar Haddad sits in her office, speaking of people who have come and gone and whose ghosts remain here, adrift. She inherited Dar Atlas from her father. But how will Dar Atlas stay afloat? Syria Untold discusses this and other issues with her.

Syria Untold (SU): Amid the economic crisis in Syria and the rise of ebooks, are books — in the physical sense — dying out? 

Samar Haddad (SH): This is a question that has been asked for two decades. Imagine! Books should have died by now. But they haven't. Instead, they always return as young as ever. The book transcends itself to become a revelation. Something that the world sees and reads.

For example: physical book fairs still exist. Each fair has dozens of  booths, and each booth hundreds of books. That’s just one example of how the physical book is alive.

Physical books are supposed to be the complete transcendence of the bitter, cultural reality we live in. Books are freedom and reading is what frees us. The true publisher, whether small, medium or large, is the freedom fighter of our age. As a publisher, I’m a resistance fighter in this age of consumerism.

And so, the physical book isn’t dying,” I still say: “No it isn’t.” That is, so long as there are people demanding physical books, people who take into account the clear difference⁠ — for them ⁠— between the physical books both good and bad, and electronic books.

We strive for perfection to the extent that we can, for something resembling intellectual satisfaction and beauty. Nobody works like this. Very few Arabic-language publishers work with this approach, one that has respect for serious readers. Despite our method, our sales inside Syria are at a loss. That’s because we are, first and foremost, a Syrian publishing house and since the beginning we have been oriented towards Syrian readers.

I said “loss” because we are unable to increase the prices of our books. The reason is, simply, that people are dying of hunger. We try to compensate for these losses through our book exhibitions abroad.

In short, I don’t agree with the idea that physical books are dying, regardless of how deeply our lived reality deteriorates.

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