Riyad Khabbaz is among the few bookbinders still working in Lebanon, and despite the threat of technological advancement he is determined to continue in his line of work.
Khabbaz, is one of the oldest binders in Beirut. He works alongside his son Chaker restoring 17th century Korans and antique books, and pressing fine leather spines onto them with delicate gold leaf writing.
“It is a profession that everyone likes because it is rich in people’s knowledge, you don’t receive any customer who wants to bind one book, it is rare, it is usually someone who has a big library, he starts with a book then 10, 15, 20 and it goes on,” said Riyad Khabbaz.
Some of his traditional book presses, that he operates by hand, were handed down by priests who were the binders of the past.
Riyad, in turn, has handed down the art of bookbinding to his sons, Chaker and Haytham, who now work alongside him in his Beirut shop.
The men work efficiently side-by-side in the small two-room workspace that withstood the country’s 15-year civil war.
“Our profession is about 40 years old here, in this region, the Serail region in central Beirut. Our job is mainly book binding, we bind antique and old books, and we restore them. There are people who still bind books despite the booming of technology now, people who still have libraries like ministers, deputies, lawyers, writers,” said Chaker Khabbaz.
Riyad is honoured and known in Beirut as one of the nation’s last great bookbinders, an old photograph hangs on his wall of him with the leader of the Lebanese Druze, Walid Jumblatt.
But despite his father’s success, his son is concerned that technological advances will eventually stifle trade in traditional bookbinding.
“A book is more valuable than a laptop or computer, you feel more comfortable when reading, it is nicer and there is a thrill in reading. My brother and I learned the profession from our father and we are continuing in it. You know these times, we thank God we are living, but it is not like 20 years ago when he raised us and made a living from it,” said Chaker.
Riyad and his two sons will stand their ground and continue to fight for survival in the dying trade in the hope of preserving the traditional art form of binding books in soft leather with ornate gold writing.