Mahmoud Al Wahab was born in 1945 to a very poor family in the city of al-Bab in rural Aleppo. He says that al-Bab was a very underdeveloped and conservative town. Transportation was minimal, and people would go shopping in Aleppo once a year.
There were no books in Mahmoud’s house until he started going to school as both his parents were illiterate. “I was the only child in the neighborhood who went to school,” he says. “It was a school built by the French in 1932. I was a good reader, and the teacher relied on to read stories to the students and help them in dictation.”
Mahmoud’s journey with reading started in middle school, where he went beyond reading textbooks to reading magazines, such as Rose al-Yusuf’s Al-Arabi and others. After completing middle school, he headed to the city of Aleppo to pursue his education at the teacher training institute. “Poverty is what pushed me to enter the teacher training institute, or perhaps it was the impact some of my teachers had on me. The institute was typical in that it contained a very important library that was comparable to the libraries of huge cultural centers,” he says.
Mahmoud graduated from the institute and found work as an elementary school teacher. His growing political awareness led him to join the Communist Party. “I used to consider the Communist Party as the country’s savior because of the nationalist ideas and class policy that it proposed,” he says. “We believed that the Nationalists and Communists would unite the Arabs, liberate Palestine, and ensure social justice.”
In 1976, Mahmoud started studying Arabic Literature in the University of Aleppo. During the same year, he was moved to the Civil Status Department. He recounts, “On one occasion, I got into a heated argument with the principal. I told him, ‘You’re right. You are first-class citizens, while we are tenth-class citizens.’ Fifteen days later, I found out that I had been transferred to the Civil Status Department, where I worked for 4 years. It was one of the worst experiences of my life.”
Mahmoud worked in the ranks of the Communist Party for about 20 years. He then quit political activity and turned to the field of creative literature, feeling despair for the country’s situation, corruption, and the impact the disintegration of the Soviet Union had on communists. He wrote his first short story collection, “Sunrays of the Past”, in 1995, in which he claimed that the regime insulted everyone, including the soldiers it used to praise. He later wrote 4 short story collections.
“The 1970s witnessed cultural and intellectual growth that lasted for years before being suppressed by groups who controlled the means of cultural production and required any content to be checked and agreed by the Ba’ath Party before publication,” he says.
In 2001, the Communist Party nominated him as director of the Cultural and Local News Department of An-Nour Newspaper. He worked there for 10 years until 2011. “In the Local News Department, I used to convey the neglect that Aleppo suffered from, especially some villages that didn’t have access to electricity or telephone networks and lacked paved roads. In fact, the governor appointed to oversee Aleppo became a millionaire because of the corruption,” he says.
In 2006, Mahmoud wanted to establish a publishing house. He got the license 10 months after submitting the application and opened the enterprise in Aleppo, which had been chosen as the capital of Islamic Culture that year. He explains, “The publishing house had an advisory body of 8 critics and intellectuals who were responsible for choosing and publishing enlightening books in an attempt to break free of the printed heritage we kept revolving around. So, we chose important topics, such as those related to the Islamic religion but from a contemporary perspective.”
He adds, “The distribution of books in Syria was limited, and there were 1,000 copies of a single book available at most. Selling books at fairs, such as the one organized by al-Asad library in Damascus, didn’t cover the registration fee. If there had been freedom of writing in Syria, it would have been a leading country in terms of writing and publishing books.”