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Khartoum, Sudan, was once considered a great literary city, but as The New York Times reports, book sales have plummeted because of "war, drought and economic privation." Fahmi Iskander, the manager at the family-run Marawi Bookshop in Khartoum, laments: “Business has dropped by 90 percent in the past 20 years." Now, a few bookshop owners have gotten together to try to revive the city's love of reading.

And yet, according to The Times, literary culture is returning to this city:

These are hard times for bookstores everywhere, of course. And as in other book-loving corners, Sudanese are quick to lament that technology and the Internet have been turning eyes away from pages and toward screens.

But there is more at work here, in a city long famous as a big market for Arabic writers. Books and reading are embedded profoundly in Khartoum’s self-image and the country’s history, and there is growing worry that the collapse of book culture is a direct mirror of the country’s overall decline.

El Tayeb Abdel-Rahman, the owner of Sudan Bookshop (established 1902), has seen a similar decline as Iskander: “We used to order a shipping container of books every month or two. But now no one reads anymore.” The Times reports that there's a "growing worry that the collapse of book culture is a direct mirror of the country’s overall decline." So a few booksellers started a monthly sale called Mafroush, where sellers can bring used books into a central square in Khartoum, and book lovers can mill about, looking at the options and discussing literature with each other. 

And while some blame the Internet for the decline of book sales, Mafroush organizers are using it to publicize their meetings. Another literary group, Education Without Borders, has organized two national reading days in Khartoum. These reading activists hope to restore Khartoum's literary history, or at least help bookshops stay in business.

This is a bright story from a continually troubled nation — just today, Sudanese President Omar al Bashir is in the news for attempting to attend a UN session in New York. American ambassador to the UN Samantha Power said the attempt is “deplorable, cynical and hugely inappropriate.” Bashir has been charged in International Criminal Court with crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.

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