Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture

The Al-Nouri bookstore, founded in 1930 in Damascus, is threatened with closure. (AFP)
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Updated 27 October 2021

Damascus bookshops disappear as crisis hits culture

  • Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works

DAMASCUS: The Damascus bookshops and publishing houses that once stood as beacons of Syria’s intellectual life are being replaced with shoe shops and money changers, as culture falls casualty to crisis.

Syria is home to some of the Arab world’s literary giants, and Damascus boasted an abundance of busy bookshops and publishing houses printing and distributing original and translated works. But the city’s literary flare has faded.

A decade-old civil war, a chronic economic crisis and a creative brain drain that has deprived Syria of some of its best writers and many of their readers, have compounded worldwide problems facing the industry, such as the growing popularity of e-books. “People can’t afford to read and bookstores can’t cover the expenses of staying open,” said Muhammad Salem Al-Nouri, 71, who inherited one of the capital’s oldest bookshops from his father.

Last month, the iconic Nobel bookshop in Damascus, founded in 1970, closed its doors.

The Al-Yaqza bookshop, founded in 1939, shut seven years ago, with a shoe store now taking its place.

A money exchange office has replaced the Maysalun bookshop which was open for four decades.

The Al-Nouri bookstore, founded in 1930, is at risk of meeting the same fate.

“We wanted it to remain for our children and grandchildren,” Nouri told AFP. “But the Al-Nouri bookshop is threatened with closure, as are other bookstores.”

The Nouri family currently runs two bookshops in central Damascus.

Three years ago, the family was forced to close a third bookshop they had opened in the capital in 2000 because of poor sales and growing costs.

Its stock remains in place, gathering dust on fully stacked shelves.

On a wooden desk, old photos of celebrity customers, including politicians, artists and poets, are placed on display.

For Sami Hamdan, 40, the cultural heyday of the 1950s and 1960s is long gone. “The war has destroyed what was left” of a cultural scene that was already in retreat, said the former owner of the Al-Yaqza bookstore.

With 90 percent of the population living below the poverty line and prices skyrocketing in the face of the plummeting value of the Syrian pound, “no one is going to invest in a bookshop during conflict,” Hamdan told AFP.

For Khalil Haddad of the Dar Oussama publishing house, books have become a “luxury” for Syrians.

Surging printing costs and logistical difficulties linked to power cuts have combined to make books too expensive for most, the 70-year-old told AFP.

“People’s priorities are food and housing,” he said.

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Iran nuclear talks pause as diplomats confer with capitals

Delegations waiting for the start of a meeting of the JCPOA in Vienna, in December 2021. (AFP/File Photo)
Updated 28 January 2022

Iran nuclear talks pause as diplomats confer with capitals

  • Russia’s representative at the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the meeting was expected to resume next week

VIENNA: Talks to salvage the tattered 2015 nuclear deal with Iran have paused while diplomats return to capitals for political consultations, European officials said Friday.

“January has been the most intensive period of these talks to date,” British, German and French negotiators said in a joint statement. “Everyone knows we are reaching the final stage, which requires political decisions.”

Russia’s representative at the talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, said the meeting was expected to resume next week.

The United States pulled out of the Vienna accord in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump and reimpose heavy sanctions on Iran. Tehran has responded by increasing the purity and amounts of uranium it enriches and stockpiles, in breach of the accord.

US President Joe Biden has signaled that he wants to rejoin the deal, which is still supported by Russia, the three European powers and China.


Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison

Updated 28 January 2022

Syrian fighters search for Daesh sleeper cells near prison

  • About a half-dozen Daesh fighters surrendered Friday morning, among scores of militants hiding in a basement in the northern section of the prison
  • Daesh group's Jan. 20 attack on the prison was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since the fall of their self-declared caliphate in 2019

BEIRUT: US-backed Kurdish-led fighters searched Friday near a Syrian prison for Daesh group militants as dozens of armed extremists holed up in a small part of the jail, a Kurdish official said.
About a half-dozen Daesh fighters surrendered Friday morning, among scores of militants hiding in a basement in the northern section of the prison, according to Siamand Ali, a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.
He would not confirm or deny a report by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, that SDF fighters discovered the bodies of 18 of their comrades inside Gweiran prison, also known as Al-Sinaa prison, in northeast Syria on Friday.
Daesh group’s Jan. 20 attack on the prison was the biggest military operation by the extremist group since the fall of their self-declared caliphate in 2019. It came as the militants staged deadly attacks in both Syria and Iraq that stoked fears that Daesh may be staging a comeback.
The weeklong assault on one of the largest detention facilities in Syria has turned the city of Hassakeh into a conflict zone. The Kurdish-led administration declared a curfew and sealed off the city, barring movement in and out.
Thousands of people in Hassakeh were displaced in recent days because of the fighting.
The SDF claimed Wednesday it had regained full control of the prison — a week after scores of militants overran the facility. The attackers allowed some to escape but also took hostages, including child detainees, and clashed with SDF fighters in violence that killed dozens.
The SDF had said that between 60 and 90 militants were hiding out in the northern section of the prison.
Ali said the militants are in the basement of a two-story building and that those who remain inside are refusing to surrender. “Our units are surrounding the building and are trying to convince them to surrender,” he said.
The Observatory said SDF fighters are betting that more time will force Daesh militants to surrender as their food dwindles.
The Hawar News Agency, ANHA, an online Kurdish news service, reported that several automatic rifles, a rocket-propelled grenade and hand grenades were confiscated from the Daesh gunmen who surrendered Friday. It added that SDF fighters are conducting search operations in the prison as well as several Hassakeh neighborhoods in search for Daesh sleeper cells.
The SDF said about 3,000 inmates have surrendered since its operation to retake the prison’s northern wing began three days ago.
At least 300 foreign child detainees are believed to be held in the Gweiran facility. Thousands more, mostly under the age of 12, are held with their mothers in locked camps in other parts of northeastern Syria on suspicion of being families of Daesh members. Most countries have refused to repatriate them, with only 25 out of 60 countries taking back their children, some without their mothers.
The Britain-based Observatory put the death toll from the struggle at over 260, including over 180 militants and more than 73 fighters from the Kurdish-led force. At least seven civilians were killed in the fighting, the Observatory said.
The SDF said preliminary information put the force’s death toll at 35.


6 dead, 30 missing after migrant boat sinks off Tunisia

Updated 28 January 2022

6 dead, 30 missing after migrant boat sinks off Tunisia

TUNIS: At least six Africans trying to migrate to Europe died and an estimated 30 were missing in the Mediterranean Sea after their boat sank off the coast of Tunisia on Thursday, according to Tunisia’s Defense Ministry.
Tunisian naval and coast guard forces retrieved the bodies, rescued 34 survivors and are searching for the people listed as missing, the ministry said in a statement. The survivors told rescuers that the boat had 70 people on it and they were headed for Italy, the ministry said.
The boat had left from neighboring Libya and sank about 40 kilometers (24 miles) off the Tunisian town of Zarzis, near the Libyan border, it said.
The survivors included people from Egypt, Sudan and Ivory Coast, according to Mongi Slim, head of the Tunisian Red Crescent.
It’s the latest of several migrant boat sinkings in the region. The central Mediterranean route, which runs from North Africa to southern Italy, is the busiest and deadliest migration route to Europe. People travel from Libya and Tunisia in crowded boats and at the mercy of the smugglers they pay to get them across the sea.
About 60,000 people arrived in Italy by sea last year, and some 1,200 died or disappeared on the journey, according to the United Nations refugee agency.
The Tunisian Defense Ministry said authorities thwarted eight boat migration trips in the last 48 hours off the coast of the city of Sfax, and 130 people from Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa were detained.

Rockets hit Baghdad airport compound

Updated 28 January 2022

Rockets hit Baghdad airport compound

  • US air base, known as Camp Victory, is located around the perimeter of Baghdad’s civilian airport

BAGHDAD: At least three rockets landed in the Baghdad International Airport compound and near an adjacent US air base, damaging one disused civilian aeroplane, Iraqi police sources said.
The police sources did not report any other damage or any injuries. The damaged aircraft was an out of use Iraqi Airways plane, they said.
The US air base, known as Camp Victory, is located around the perimeter of Baghdad’s civilian airport.
Rocket attacks which US and some Iraqi officials blame on Iran-aligned Shiite militia groups who oppose the US military presence in the region have regularly hit the complex in recent years.


Coalition says target in Saada airstrike was a Houthi special security camp

Updated 28 January 2022

Coalition says target in Saada airstrike was a Houthi special security camp

  • Coalition spokesman slams Houthis for peddling misleading information
  • Joint Forces Command ready to present facts to UN Humanitarian and Red Cross teams

RIYADH: The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen on Friday denied targeting a prison in Saada and accused the Houthi militia of trying to mislead the public.

Houthi officials on Thursday claimed that coalition air strikes last week killed around 90 people and wounded more than 200 at Saada prison.

In a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency, Coalition spokesman Brig. Gen. Turki Al-Malki said the targeted location was a Houthi special security camp, which is a "legitimate military target". 

Al-Maliki cited a report of the Joint Incidents Assessment Team (JIAT) dated January 27, 2022, after investigating the Houthis' claim.

The statement said there are four locations identified as prisons in the Joint Forces Command’s No Strike List (NSL) in Saada, all of which are being used by the "terrorist Houthi militia" in launching "cross-border attacks to target civilians and civilian objects."

The closest prison is located 1.8 kilometers away from the site targeted in a coalition air strike.

"What was announced and disseminated by the terrorist Houthi militia in its media outlets is a blatant attempt to mislead the public opinion regarding the true nature of the location in an attempt to garner sympathy from UN organizations and INGOs," Al-Maliki said in the statement.

He assured that the Joint Forces Command "applies the highest targeting standards."

The Coalition said it is prepared to shed light on the issue with representatives of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and Red Cross.

"The terrorist Houthi militia bears the full responsibility in case it uses civilians as human shields in its military locations," Al-Maliki said.

Fighting has escalated in recent weeks, with more air strikes on what the coalition says are Houthi military targets.

The Iran-aligned Houthi movement has stepped up missile and drone attacks on the United Arab Emirates and cross-border launches on neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

The coalition had previously accused the Houthis of using civilian centers as a shield against legitimate strikes.

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