Since 1978, Al Saqi Books has been a mainstay of Arabic culture, often publishing books censored in the Middle East and becoming a safe haven for those escaping conflict.
Salwa Gaspard gazes fondly at the hundreds of Arabic-language books displayed on dark wooden shelves, putting some back in place while exchanging a few words with customers.
In just a few days, her London bookshop, known to literary enthusiasts throughout the Middle East, will close for good.
Al Saqi Books is another victim of the pandemic, and the economic upheaval in the UK and Lebanon, from where Gaspard and her husband Andre’s publishing house prints and ships most of its books.
Since they opened the bookshop in a white collonaded building not far from Paddington railway station in west London in 1978, it has become a must-see for visitors from the Middle East.
“They would go to Oxford Street (the main shopping street), to Knightsbridge (the area around the famous Harrods shop) and to Al Saqi,” she told AFP.
In Arabic, Al Saqi means a water carrier in the desert, the 74-year-old bookseller said, describing it as a “perfect name”.
“We thought it was a very nice name for a bookshop because we were carrying Arabic culture,” she added.
The bookshop also sells English-language publications on the Arab world “to give them a different idea of the Middle East, which is not about the violent images they see on TV, or they read in the newspaper”, she said.
The bookshop’s success helped the couple to set up a publishing company, initially translating Arab works into English, such as ‘The Crusades Through Arab Eyes’ by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf.
For more than 40 years, many writers, including Syrian poet Adonis, have come to the London bookshop to present their works.
It also became a meeting place, even a “refuge”, for those uprooted by conflict and turmoil in the Middle East.
But Al Saqi Books always fiercely defended its independence and open-mindedness.
“It was like a safe haven. But also, it was like they felt they were with friends who could understand them because we all understood what was happening,” said Gaspard.
Even though the owners have always been careful to stay out of politics, the bookshop has not escaped the jolts of geopolitics.
In 1988, when Salman Rushdie’s ‘The Satanic Verses’ was published, the bookshop’s window was smashed.
But Gaspard said: “We never believed in censorship… we didn’t want to ban anything.”
The couple were also attacked when they published Israeli Abba Eban’s translation of a work by the Egyptian author Tawfiq al Hakim.
She recalled outrage, as the book came out before the peace process but she said it was simply an “intellectual union” between an Egyptian and an Israeli.
The announcement on December 5 that the bookshop will close at the end of this month prompted an avalanche of messages.
UK-based Algerian journalist and academic Ouissal Harize wrote on Twitter: “You will definitely be missed. Thank you for giving us a home away from home.”
The editor-in-chief of Esquire Middle East, Nasri Atallah, called the closure “incredibly sad”.
Al Saqi was “a mainstay of my whole existence in London – and of my father before me”, he wrote.
At the bookshop, Farah Otozbeer, a 24-year-old Egyptian student, was in London to receive her degree from the London School of Economics and wanted to visit one last time.
“I used to feel like it was a sanctuary in London. So it’s… very, very sad news,” she added.
Joseph Devine, one of the bookshop’s employees and a former Arabic student, likened it to a “cultural centre”, publishing books that were often censored back home.
“It’s always been a place that Arabs often come here from all around the Middle East just to buy books that they can’t get in their own countries,” he said.
“It’s also been important for translating our literature and our non-fiction as well into English and spreading that through to Anglophone readers as well.”
After Covid closures, Gaspard’s hopes of bouncing back were dashed by both the UK cost-of-living crisis that has seen inflation hit double digits and energy prices soar and economic chaos in Lebanon, increasing import costs to the UK.
“It was really very hard to break even,” she added.
“Fleeing Lebanon, we had no family in London, and this was our family. All the employees were like family, some of the customers became like family. It was like a home far from home. So we’re losing all this now.”