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Writing on the wall



IT would be difficult to formulate a more poignant mix of frustration, desperation and utter despair. “All of society is collectively in the grasp of moral degradation, senselessness, extremism and terrorism because of ignorance,” says the stark white lettering against a black background. “People don’t have the habit of reading anymore. So libraries and bookstores have no meaning for such a society. […]”

So reads the poster that hangs outside the nearly quarter-century-old Shaheen Books in Peshawar, one of the city’s last few retail outfits dedicated to the love of the printed word. Business has been so slow in recent years that it has been reduced to offering a 50 per cent discount. Even so, the owner, Riaz Gul, has had to return a large quantity of stock to the publishers. Very shortly, Shaheen is set to reduce its operations to stationery alone.

The bookstore was opened in 1992 by Gul’s father, Mustafa Kamal, a local man who wanted a line of work that allowed him to indulge in and promote his own passion for reading. Recently, Gul told this newspaper that just 15 years ago, the shop was thronged by people, adults and children, locals and foreigners alike. Once, it held thousands of books of all genres in stock.

Thriving bookstores are conspicuous by their absence.

It is not that people in the city don’t have money to spend, as evidenced by shoppers who continue to flock to marketplaces to spend fairly lavishly — depending on income levels — on clothes, shoes and international fast-food chains. It is just that there is no market for books in this city anymore. Peshawar’s other iconic bookstore, Saeed Book Bank, closed shop in 2007 as a result of the owners getting threats of kidnapping, and moved to Islamabad. The third, the London Book Agency, sells only textbooks now, it too having found that the city’s residents read only what they cannot avoid. According to Gul, book sales registered a sharp drop in 2005, and have steadily been declining ever since.

One main reason for this sad state of affairs has been the terrorism and extremism that hit the country in general and this city in particular since broadly the turn of the millennium.

Gul says that as the security situation deteriorated, there has been a steady exodus of families who are educated and could explore the possibility of moving away. More than any other city, perhaps, it is Peshawar that has had to bear the brunt of the extremists’ war against culture and civilisational history, with CD shops being burned down, performers being threatened and killed, and cinema halls being forced to close.

But more than that, Gul feels that there is a declining interest in books and the stories/wisdom of the ages that they have to offer. This is anecdotally evidenced by merely scanning the shelves of most bookstores in Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.

There are a few success stories, such as Saeed Book Bank which has had the good fortune of reaching iconic stature again in Islamabad, and Liberty Books that has enough of a clientele-base to sustain multiple well-stocked outlets in major cities.

But smaller operations, the sort that once existed in almost every marketplace and mohalla, and that by numbers constituted the bulk of the bookselling industry, have had to reduce their spending on books — particularly fiction — and buttress their income with merchandise such as lunchboxes and school bags, stationery, and toys, etc.

One has to now go looking for the old bookshops that were once ubiquitous. The owner of one such small store in affluent Islamabad told me that his clientele has dropped sharply over the past decade or so, and that his observation is that those who do buy books, tend to buy new ones — indicating, perhaps, that the impulse to purchase comes from the desire to acquire rather than get into a good story. This is a bookstore I have been visiting regularly for neigh on to 30-odd years; where once there used to be a surfeit of dog-eared Archie comics, Georgette Heyers and Penguin classics, today books on accounting, marketing and computer sciences are in a majority.

Of course, the argument is valid that reading habits and trends change as a result of technology such as television, the internet and e-books. Still, an elite school in Karachi threw parents into a state of consternation when it organised a book-exchange day for first grade students, requiring kids to bring five books from their homes to redistribute among themselves. Many had to go buy the books.

It’s hard to deny that Shaheen Books’ comment about ignorance hits the bullseye. The thought might occur that this, combined with the inability to tolerate a multiplicity of views and a lack of interest in history, are contributing causes to the instability in the country. Surely, there is no room for Pakistan to fall further into the hole; or is there?