Persistence for the Sake of Dialogue

The fall of Iran's Shah and September 11 were events which triggered the need for a dialogue between the West and the Islamic world. However, Hans Schiler, a publisher from Berlin, never needed any prompting. This has been an important issue for him for the past 25 years. An article by Christoph Burgmer for the German magazine "LiteraturNachrichten".

Hans Schiler is not so easy to rattle. In economic terms, everyone in the business of publishing refers to crisis management when talking about anything that has to do with selling books. But, this has been the daily routine for the publisher from Berlin for almost 30 years. He has brought out a second chair from the storeroom, moved a few boxes aside and cleared a little space on his desk for a glass of water. It has only been a few weeks since he moved into the new Kreuzberg premises with his new publishing company, Hans Schiler Verlag. At the moment he is the sole tenant of shop premises in a multi-storied old building. The building is being gutted and renovated. No amount of drilling, hammering or installing new water pipes and electric cables can disturb his concentration. The next list must be completed and delivery to the booksellers is just up ahead. Running a "one-man publishing company" is a question of experience. Nobody, except the publisher himself, answers the telephone, defines the new list, negotiates with the printers, the authors, the booksellers, does the accounting, sends out reminders, edits manuscripts in the few quiet hours and filters through the unsolicited manuscripts for potential future titles.

Hans Schiler is certainly an idealist, but definitely no dreamer as some other small publishers are. He cannot afford to be vain; in fact, even taking part in the Frankfurt Book Fair is financially not possible. Nonetheless, Hans Schiler has already contributed more to understanding the Arabic Islamic world than many other publishing houses. It seems to be the fate of the pioneer never to have been accorded appropriate recognition for his commitment. "That is not so important

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to me," he says "we have to carry on working to intensify the exchange of ideas between the Arabic world and Europe," a project that Hans Schiler has devoted himself to for the last 25 years. Back in 1977, as a specialist in Islamic Studies, he founded the publishing company, "Das Arabische Buch "(The Arabic Book) that included a bookshop. The idea behind it was to facilitate a cultural forum in which meetings, an exchange of thought between Europe and the Middle Eastern, Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Indian worlds could take place.

For reference: 1977, after overcoming the so called Oil Crisis and two years prior to the shock in the West after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, there were hardly any publications of Arabic or Persian authors on the shelves in German bookshops. Academic books about the region were published solely for students at the appropriate University Faculties and terms such as Islam, the Koran, sharia and Islamic fundamentalism were "foreign" to the public discussion concerning the global political situation. The entire discourse on literature within the Arabic world was at best known in initiated circles. Hans Schiler was to help change this. On the one hand, several academic studies were published that would otherwise have not been, on the other hand early literary works that had won awards were published, as for example by Rafik Schami or also the then unknown author Salim Alafenisch. Bilingual texts and translations of classical Arabic or Persian texts were also part of his list. When the publishing house "Das Arabische Buch", had to close in summer 2001 mainly because university budgets for buying reference books were slashed, Hans Schiler put some of the titles on the back list of the publishing company named after him. Only a few selected titles, such as the excellent translation of "Rosengarten" (Rose Garden) by Saadi or the anthology "Zwischen Zauber und Zeichen" (Between Magic and Symbols. Modern Arabic Verse from 1945 to the Present) published by the exiled Iraqi lyricist Khalid Al-Maaly now living in Cologne, are available.

Some of the books that Hans Schiler still looks after today have prompted worldwide discussion. It was Hans Schiler who in 1999 realised the importance of the scientific study with the difficult title "The Syro-Aramaic version of the Koran," and bore the risk of publishing it when no other publishing house was willing to do so. In the meantime the book has enjoyed a worldwide response and was reviewed extensively in newspapers such as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, La Stampa and the Guardian. Which German work of non-fiction has had such a success story? As is often the case with renowned works on the Islamic-Arabic world, there was hardly a reaction at all in Germany.

This case has once again made one thing more than obvious. A publisher with the expertise and experience of Hans Schiler would be a well known public figure in the Anglo-American world or in France. The question is, however, if the Kreuzberg publisher would even want this. "The new publishing company demands a lot of attention," he says, "as the list is to be extended with titles on right-wing radicalism and globalisation." Schiler would like to continue the tradition of publishing books by Arabic authors who write in German. A treasure hunt, accompanied by many known difficulties, but with the certainty of finding a gem now and again. Schiler obviously knows that should he be successful, the large publishing houses will woo the authors away from him. Schiler´s limited financial resources would not allow him to properly market a young author in the book trade. The book market is simply not a business for romantics. However, the fact that there is still a place for cool, calculated and creative small publishing companies can be considered fortunate. For Hans Schiler success is the result of consistent and persistent efforts. All that is left is to wish the unyielding Kreuzberg publisher continuing sensitivity which has contributed in the last 25 years to enriching our view of the "Orient" in the wider sense through sound works of non-fiction and up-to-date fiction. It is definitely a fact that without publishers like Hans Schiler the exchange of opinion between Europe and the "Islamic world" would be without one of its most important protagonists.

By Christoph Burgmer, Translation: Farina Boltersdorf

Source: LiteraturNachrichten 74/2002

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