The Paris of the Orient by Meike Ziervogel

I press my hands against my ears and try to shut out the Arabic music that has been coming from the speakers next to Peirene’s desk for hours. But I can’t take it any longer.

‘Peirene, just turn off that music, will you.’

‘But it’s Fairuz, the famous Lebanese singer.’ The Nymph looks at me accusingly. ‘I’m playing her for your benefit. You, in particular, need to listen to as much Lebanese music and watch as many Lebanese TV programmes as you can in the next few weeks. Your heavy Egyptian accent won’t work in Beirut.’

That’s enough. ‘I’m off for a run.’ I jump up.

‘Why don’t you come with me to my belly dance class?’ she shouts after me. ‘Much better for your tummy muscles than a run.’

I slam the door behind me. The Nymph has become intolerable with her relentless enthusiasm for all things Arabic. And it’s all my fault.


Back in July, the Lebanese based NGO Basmeh & Zeitooneh, with whom we collaborated on Shatila Stories, approached me. Would I join them in their Beirut office this October for a year and help them to turn the women’s workshops they have set up in Syrian and Palestinian refugee camps across the region into viable businesses that will create a sustainable income for the refugees? I said yes straight away. What an opportunity to use the business skills I have gained running a publishing house to help people in need. What an adventure to once again live in the Arab world. The last time I did that was 30 years ago in Egypt. And what a chance to create some new Peirene Now! books, by running a regular creative writing course in the Shatila refugee camp.

At first, I was just as excited as Peirene.

Since then, however, I’ve been on an emotional rollercoaster.

There are days where I – like the Nymph – can’t wait to go. But then there are also many moments where I’m almost paralysed by fear of the task ahead. People will depend on me for finding business opportunities so that the refugee women and the charity can earn an income. How on earth will I do that? And I’m also overcome by worry about my publishing house. Yes, I have a team in place. But what if they ignore problems that need to be solved?

Peirene doesn’t share my concerns. She’s convinced Molly and Ben will do a good job here in London – ‘Meike, you’ve lined up the books that we will publish in 2019 and 2020, and now Molly is excited to take over. She’ll do brilliantly.’ And regarding our work with Basmeh & Zeitooneh, the Nymph keeps a cool head: ‘As long as we put one foot in front of the other, continuously implementing and adjusting, we will make something happen. We are good at creating something out of nothing – you and I.’


I’m back from my run. Peirene throws me an inquiring glance:

‘Feeling better?’

I nod. ‘And what have you been up to in the meantime?’ I ask.

‘I’ve written a list with everything I have to do before we leave.’

My face lights up. ‘Wonderful. I hope you didn’t forget to include setting up our new translation prize and making sure the contracts for the 2020 titles are all signed?’

Peirene laughs, shaking her head. ‘That’s all under control. No. I mean all the appointments. I’m going to be so insanely busy.’ She rolls her eyes in distress and begins to recite: ‘Hairdresser, facial, nails, new sunglasses, a henna tattoo. After all, we are going to live in the Paris of the Orient. And I have to arrive in style.’

By Meike Ziervogel

(Image by Steven Damron, Creative Commons)

This blog was originally published on 19 September 2018 as part of Peirene Press‘s series The Pain & Passion of a Small Publisher.

Category: The Pain & Passion of a Small Publisher


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