A Plea for Traumatized Libraries

A Beirut bookstore owner is raising funds to repair Lebanese libraries damaged in the war with Israel.

People don't go to Michel Choueiri's El Bourj bookstore in Beirut just to buy books.

"I usually go there to meet people, because it's the center of everything," says a journalist friend from Lebanon. "El Bourj is one of the special bookstores you find in every big European or Mediterranean city. A store where the books are just an excuse for other kinds of business."

This other business usually means meeting with artists and writers who come to the store to find out how their books are selling, and to meet journalists for interviews and clients interested in rubbing shoulders with the Lebanese intelligentsia.

I came across Choueiri's establishment, which is located in the same building as the Lebanese paper An Nahar, when The Daily Star reported the store was launching a project to restore Lebanese libraries damaged in the war. This ostensibly referred to what is usually called minor environmental damage - repairing a few libraries for a small sum. Choueiri's blog, bibliban.over-blog.com, shows otherwise. The blog features photos of the damaged libraries alongside the sums needed to repair them: $41,000 for the library in the Hreik neighborhood near the southern quarter, which was heavily bombed by the IDF; $44,000 for the library in Bint Jbail, where close to 1,000 books were destroyed; and $60,000 for the library in Aitit, whose building was totally destroyed.

"The problem is that repairing libraries is not a project in which the government can take pride," explains the Lebanese journalist, "and that's why no one is looking after these libraries. Of the $2.5 billion or so the Lebanese government received in donations, it is doubtful any of these libraries will see a penny of it."

Hezbollah's books

And then there is the matter of politics. Because these libraries are in southern villages or Shi'ite areas, in the end they will most likely be repaired by Hezbollah and filled with books the organization approves.

This is what makes Choueiri's project important - he plans to acquire books for children and students, from world literature to reference books. He plans to donate 10 percent of his store's October and November revenues to buy books for the damaged libraries. He may also buy books at a substantial discount directly for the libraries. An item in The Daily Star described, for example, a mother who came to the store with her two kids and told them to choose books for themselves. In the end, she purchased the books for libraries in the south.

This initiative has already raised several hundred dollars, but few buyers and donors have been recruited - as a result of the war, fewer people are shopping, especially for luxury items like books. Only one business was not affected, so it seems: Car dealers say sales volume was not affected by the war.

Choueiri's book project may be unusual, but it is not unique. The Iqra' foundation is planning to launch within the next month a mobile library that travels through Lebanese villages. This library, which is receiving funding from the European Union, is part of a larger initiative by Lebanese organizations to rehabilitate children suffering from war-related traumas.

The organizations will be putting together reading days for children, a mobile theater and game sessions in which psychologists and social workers take part. These initiatives have one goal: getting Lebanese children and adolescents to read.

Shreen Kreidieh, who works at the Lebanese children's book publisher Assalah, researched the subject. She says Lebanese children are no different from those in the rest of the world, and says they usually avoid public libraries. But in Lebanon, unlike other Arab countries, people are at least willing to try to publish books that violate cultural taboos in order to spark an interest in reading. That is why, for example, Assalah recently translated a German book introducing children to animals by examining their feces. Another popular book from Assalah is "There's a War in My City," which tries to deal with the crises children face during a war.

Restoring the national library

Repairing the libraries in Lebanon's periphery is only one attempt to restore normal cultural life to post-war Lebanon. Several parties have also been attempting to rebuild Beirut's National Library. The library was founded in 1921 by historian Viscount Philippe de Tarazi, who donated his 200,000-item book and manuscript collection. The 1924 Lebanese book deposit law greatly increased the library's inventory.

However, like other important Beirut institutions, the library effectively ceased to exist during the Lebanese civil war. The rare manuscripts in its possession, including the first newspapers printed in Beirut, were stored in terrible conditions around the city, and were severely damaged.

The library's friends association, founded in 2000, and the Lebanese government have been promoting the repair and relocation of the library. The library was supposed to have been dedicated this past July, but this was postponed because of the war.