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Shelves of Memories – by Leyla Zuaiter

Contributed by Ibrahim Marazka on 17.11.2005:

The Educational Bookshop

Shelves of Memories, Shelves of Dreams

By Leyla Zuaiter

Entering the Educational Bookshop at 22 Salaheddin Street, I am embraced by almost twenty years of Jerusalem memories. Lined up neatly like books on the shelves are the milestones of the first Intifada, the hesitant hope of Oslo, the exciting build-up to Bethlehem 2000, the heartbreak of the second Intifada, and the perils of the post 9/11 world. My own personal memories, however, come tumbling down and jumbling together like books from shelves with a missing peg. The most mundane of objects in this cozy shop, which is packed from floor to ceiling with everything from prosaic pens and pencils to handsome gold-lettered, leather-bound sets of Arabic books, is infused with meaning. The envelopes, files, posters, cards, books and maps bought (and even borrowed) and the photocopies made or bound in spirals, mark a succession of ventures, adventures and misadventures, of seasonal cycles and life cycles. Aside from this, the Educational Bookshop symbolizes to me much of what is right with Palestine—its treasured values and its perennial pleasures. Among these pleasures is the certainty of seeing the same proprietors, Emad and Nihad Muna, year after year, as well as something that sociologists posit as a key to happiness and have a fancy name for, something like “regular unplanned, random meeting of acquaintances.” Simply translated, this means running into people you know, as I so often do at the Educational Bookshop.

But today my meeting is planned, so I only glance briefly at the inviting outdoor stands of newspapers, magazines and postcards flanking the display window, noting that the Millennium cards have been largely replaced by images by Palestinian artists. Resisting reveries more suited to rainy April afternoons in attics of far-off lands than this hot Middle Eastern August sidewalk, I push my way into the air-conditioned relief of the shop. I have no idea as I enter to what extent the central story of this bookshop is tangled up in tantalizing tangents of other stories: the extended family of Edward Said, whose books are among those in greatest demand on the shelves, the incredible shrinking city that is Jerusalem, and Palestinians who publish, yet perish. Even the Iraq conflict plays a cameo role. I discover that unbeknownst to me, I may have rubbed shoulders on these premises with representatives of one of fifty publishing houses, or one of the Palestinian authors, whether living here or in exile, who frequent the Educational Bookshop. Who knows? Perhaps I may have missed Edward Said himself, in his stop during the production of a BBC film on his life.

The store is uncharacteristically quiet. The morning crowd of tourists, foreign residents and workers, journalists and Arab intellectuals, drawn by the shop’s wide selection of books on Palestine as well as foreign magazines and newspapers, has waned with the hours; it is several weeks before my children will join the bustle of young girls in dark blue or striped green and white uniforms in the back-to-school ritual, each year distinguished from the last by the color of the headscarves. While they make their selections over the stationery counter, I will browse the latest English guidebooks, dictionaries, and Arabic literature in translation, as well as works on religion, history, and politics across the aisle. If there is time, I might have a look at the French corner as well, or ask one of Emad’s brothers to get down one of the enticing hefty tomes on Palestinian architecture or photography from the top shelf.

Emad’s brothers are here now, probably the first time I see them all together. Aside from Nihad who mans the counter, they are engaged in work or studies elsewhere, helping out in the shop occasionally. Emad himself, however, is across the street in the three-story space to which the books will soon be moved in a new European style bookshop/café, where people will be able to meet by appointment rather than accident. They call him, and when we sit at his desk behind the counter, they follow the conversation, throwing in comments or helping Emad recall names and dates.

It is now that I discover that the Educational Bookshop was born out of one of those twists of fate against which one rails at the time but for which one is eternally grateful in retrospect. If Emad had gotten the university teaching position he sought when he returned from Yarmuk University with a degree in Computer Science, there might not have been an Educational Bookshop as we know it. But, incredible as it now seems, there was little demand in 1985 for computer specialists in Palestine, as computers had barely been introduced here. When a year had passed he knew he had to do something else. That is when he rented these quarters, which were once part of a thriving bookstore called the Palestinian Educational Bookstore belonging to a relative of the late Edward Said. When in 1967 the Said family opened a new bookstore in Amman, the Salaheddin store was progressively neglected and finally closed in the early 1980s, reverting to the owners of the building, who split up the store into three shops and put them up for rent

Emad rented the middle shop, planning to focus on computers, but as there was still not enough demand, he turned it into a bookshop instead. Although he took “Palestine” out of the shop’s name, he didn’t take it out of the shop itself. For although he began modestly at first, with office and school supplies, later adding a shelf of books in Arabic, the outbreak of the first Intifada shortly afterward caused him to change course once again. “Suddenly foreign journalists, and aid or development workers arrived on the scene looking for books to help them understand the political situation,” he says. “At that time, although other bookshops in East Jerusalem might carry the odd book or two in English on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it was hard to find any book written from a Palestinian perspective.” Emad collected all of Edward Said’s books as well as the publications of such local institutions as the Institute for Palestinian Studies, Arab Studies Society and Al Haq, and set out to acquire the books on Palestine which started to appear at an ever-increasing rate.

Glancing at the photocopier next to me, I have a flashback to my first memory of the Educational Bookshop in those Intifada days. Who remembers now how we had to master the art of being in several places at once as everything—stores, work, institutions shut down at noon? I can still see myself panting as I pushed my first-born daughter’s stroller on the way home from work, trying to get to the Educational Bookshop in time to make oversize photocopies of my detailed hand-scrawled letters. These grace my own shelves now, fading chronicles of a bye-gone era, while posters of Palestinian doorways, costumes, and streets bought here now adorn the French dorm-room of the stroller’s occupant.

Being far more interested in Palestinian culture and society than politics, I had not been appreciative enough of what an advance it was to have shelves full of what I imagined to be tedious tomes and treatises—no matter whose perspective they were written from. But later, in the Oslo years, it was here, elated that finally we could talk about something else besides politics, that I picked up my first copy of This Week in Palestine, the contents of which led to many adventures for me and my children. In those days we took our adventures where we found them. Once, years before The Da Vinci Code, when I wanted to take my children to see an exhibition of the never-realized inventions of Leonardo da Vinci in an unfamiliar part of West Jerusalem, I asked Nihad if I might just photocopy the needed page of the map, and he graciously acquiesced. I couldn’t imagine daring to make such a request in another country, but after all, hadn’t Emad shown me many kindnesses in my short-lived but meaningful private-sector venture a few years earlier?

Emad, meantime, has dedicated himself to his own accidental venture with a passion, reading book reviews and author profiles of all the new books on Palestine. He attends the London Book Fair in March and the Frankfurt Book Fair in October. The latter, given in honor of the Arab world in 2004, was attended by a Palestinian delegation, including the novelist and future Minister of Culture Yahya Yakhlif, a representative of Tamer Institute, as well as Palestine’s Poet Laureate, Mahmoud Darwish. As flattering and interesting as it was, Emad felt something was missing: “There was not a single Palestinian publishing house to take its place among the nations,” Emad laments. This is not to say that there are no Palestinian authors published by international publishing houses. Sharon and my Mother-in-Law, a current best-seller, was published by Granta, while Raja Shehadeh’s books also find mainstream publishers. However, these are books which almost by definition the publishers feel will appeal to an international audience. Having Palestinian voices reach international audiences in this way is much to be desired. But what about local audiences?

Emad explains that books published locally by Palestinians fall into two categories: those that are “self-published” and those published by an institution, a situation which he sees as highly unsatisfactory. In both cases, there is extremely limited distribution. He pulls out I am Jerusalem, a memoir by John Tleel, which I had noticed on an earlier expedition, vowing to buy some day. “This was only distributed within Jerusalem,” he informs me. “It didn’t even make it to neighboring Palestinian cities, much less abroad. A certain number of copies is printed, and once they are gone, they are gone,” he continues. I now recall the number of interesting books I had seen in the shop, planning to return for them, only to find them unavailable when I did.

The situation is hardly encouraging to aspiring writers. As Emad points out, a great amount of sacrifice and determination is needed, since far from getting financial remuneration, they must spend their own income to do so. But writing for an institution is not that attractive either, as Emad sees it. “The institution gets the credit for the publication, and the author gets a certain number of copies.” Emad is a bit cynical about the contents of these books, which seem to be donor-driven, rather than a response to local needs. One year the fashion will be gender studies, and there will be a surfeit of books on the subject, the next year it will be something else.

A Palestinian publishing house is important because if the author dies, or all the books sold, it is almost impossible to get a copy, and many valuable books simply disappear from view, Emad argues, citing as an example the scarce works of Aref El-Aref, a Palestininan historian active in the early part of the last century. “With a publishing house, there is an address. If you ask about a book ten years later, say, there is someone to talk to.” Emad’s dream is to found the first Palestinian publishing house one day.

But there is another hurdle Palestinian writers and potential publishers face, Emad informs me: the decline of the Palestinian reading public, which was never particularly numerous to begin with. One of his customers, seeing a foreign woman emerge with a stack of books and magazines, translated aloud the equivalent cost in kilos of meat. It is true that the cost of books presents an obstacle. Unlike European books, they are subject to Value Added Tax (VAT) which makes them relatively expensive in the best of times. And these are not the best of times.

But the lack of appreciation cannot all be attributed to cost. When customers ask for advice concerning birthday presents and he suggests a book, they dismiss the suggestion out of hand. It is perhaps because of this perceived lack of interest in reading that in the early days of the current Intifada it only occurred to me to check the Educational Bookshop for the latest volume of Harry Potter as a last resort, finding it sold out in West Jerusalem. The situation was desperate. Reading was one of the few outlets open in those housebound days, and I feared my youngest daughter would expire if she didn’t get it that very day. The Educational Bookshop saved the day and we learned our lesson: a few weeks ago we went straight to the Educational Bookshop to get the latest volume of Harry Potter, which appeared there on the international release date.

Our talk turns to the Iraq conflict, which has often found me in the Educational Bookshop avoiding the ugly present by seeking solace in the Iraqi past, binding copies of rare books on nineteenth century Iraq I have ingeniously managed to track down and buying padded envelopes to mail off the results of my latest genealogical research to the favored few. As we talk, Emad is reminded of his role in the conflict. One of his former customers, Georges Malbrunot, an Arabic-speaking French journalist for Le Figaro, and co-author of a book on Saddam Hussein, was kidnapped when reposted to Baghdad. When he found out, Emad made a poster from a photograph he happened to have of him, and passed it out to all his customers in a spirit of solidarity. Later he addressed words of comfort to Georges on the radio hoping that he might hear them. He did and when eventually he was released, he made his way back to the Educational Bookshop to thank him and asked to see the poster.

In Palestine, very few things work out as one plans. Dreams are shattered every day. But as they lurch from one era to another on the perpetual political roller-coaster, Palestinians take with them resilience, generosity, family feeling, concern for others and an endless supply of stories which never make it into print. And that is the real story of the Educational Bookshop.

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