Libraries on Quicksand

This essay was written for the artist’s publication When The Library Was Stolen, on the Private Archive of Abd Al-Rahman Munif in the spring of 2017. The publication was issued by the artist collective Fehras Publishing Practices. It consists of 544 pages and is published bilingually in English and Arabic and divided into three chapters.
This first chapter features selected essays addressing topics such as the library as a space, publication practices in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, and archiving publications with contributions from Amer Bader Hassoun (archivist, publisher, and collector), Suad Kawadri (the wife of Abd Al-Rahman Munif), Hassan Yaghi (publisher), Franck Mermier (anthropologist), Fehras Publishing Practices & Nadia Saleh (radio producer). The second chapter includes a catalogue documenting approx. 10.000 publications of the library and the third presents the photographs of Munif’s library which are the key documentary materials that set the foundations for the content of the publication.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was the first book I bought as an exile.
This was in 1978, days after I had arrived in Morocco.
The book was in French, but I proceeded with the purchase, and eagerly so, even though I didn’t know a word of French!
This would happen to me many times throughout the years I spent in exile, thirty-four years to be precise.
What exactly was I searching for in a book whose language I couldn’t read? Why did I keep on getting books that I would never read?
And when I returned to Iraq, my homeland, why did I buy books that I would never read?

It took me years, and relentless reading, to understand: why was I buying books that I had read prior in my homeland, in different eras of life? As an exile, I was searching for my homeland – nothing less, nothing more! In fact, the very term homeland here seems a bit cliché. Maybe it’s a bit dramatic, an exaggeration. Still, ever since I left, the meaning of homeland has changed, and gradually so. No longer does it connote a map, flag, or national anthem. No longer is it an obscurity as the nation is commonly defined among Arabs. Nay, it has become more concrete, human, and full of vitality. It has come to mean the following: sweet, hazy memories; melodies and soundscapes of place; sitting in a café, social club, or under a tree; hanging out on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, or rather dipping my toes into the river, splashing my feet around, with book in hand! The mental images I have of nation have always featured a book; whether in a café, theatre, cinema, or bus, there was always a book, or more, in my hands.

I was in my twenties when I started working as a journalist and learned early on that quality, innovative journalism was a matter of immersing myself in books, always and forever. I learned that journalism wasn’t about shrewdness, scandals, or public relations but instead concerned knowledge drawn from books, all kinds of them: books about chess strategy, about outer space, Einstein’s theory of relativity – the mother ships of history books, works by Al-Jahiz, Abu Hayyan Al-Tawhidi, Al-Tabiri, travelogues by songwriters, novels by Faulkner, Françoise Sagan, Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, a bit of Abi Al-Alaa Al-Maari, Al-Mutannabi, Badr Shaker Al-Siyab, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Shakespeare, some Dante, Sartre, Albert Camus, Simon de Beauvoir, Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein, Ghaeb Tumeh Farman, Jean Anouilh, John Osborne, Brecht … not to mention books about politics. As I would later come to learn, these latter books would really get on my nerves, more than anything else.
And so here I am, listing the books I read in Iraq, tracing as it were the borders of my nation, painting its portrait, restoring it with my memories. No memory can compare with the credibility of those connected to books. While I can hardly remember where I read this or that book, I could guess, years after reading a book, exactly on which page – odd or even – to find a particular passage I wanted to recall!

Of course, I would know exactly where to find a book in my library or how many books I had placed on my nightstand and on the television stand. My first library was all strewn about: the books would move around with me. Eventually, the library became organized, and my mother began to make room for Amer’s library that continued to grow. She had mixed feelings about this: delight that her son was well read, beyond his young age, and worry that his insights might draw the enmity of the government! Writers and those who read books are difficult to subject, so the government hates them: they inevitably become the opposition. That’s why security forces would cast a suspicious eye on those who always had aabook in hand. My first library came to an end the day I fled Iraq: my family buried some of the books, wrapped in plastic bags, and distributed others to relatives and friends. My parents had to get rid of it entirely, leave no trace behind for the security forces to see – indeed, if they were to raid my house searching for me, they would have confiscated the books and considered them to be instruments of crime! In the eyes of the political police and security forces, any book might be a clue or evidence of a crime. The strange thing is that, before I fled, I asked a friend to return the books he had loaned and to hand them over to my parents when he finished reading them.

In truth, it is the personal library, however small, that is our primary teacher, our author; it forms the structure of our ideas. Whenever I’m visiting a friend or acquaintance, I always glance at his library and the titles therein to know who this person is. My library, like your library, tells me who I am, who you are. It is the most eloquent and influential teacher of our lives.

The Little Prince was among the books closest to my heart. I can’t count the number of times I have read this beautiful and inspiring book. When I came across it in the bookstore and purchased it, even though it was in French, I knew it page-by-page and reveled in the illustrations by the author. I would see things through his own eyes, as he wanted.
In Morocco, the bookstores of Casablanca and Rabat surprised me with their stock: all the books banned in my country, that we used to read secretly, were there on the shelves. (As I would later come to learn, these books did not have the great value that we used to imagine and the significance that we would attribute to them as we read in secret.) But the titles took my breath away: from Al-Bah Fi Awdeh Al-Sheikh Ila Sabah (Aphrodisia: The Sheikh Returns to His Childhood) and to Al-Baheth Aan Al-That (In Search of Identity: An Autobiography) by Anwar Sadat.
I was still looking for a job and had not decided whether to settle in Morocco or to continue my journey to another place. Still, I bought books, and the table in my hotel room became my library. Even after I left the hotels and rented out rooms in private residences, the scenario was the same; when books filled the entire space of my desk or table, they would stack up underneath it or by my mattress. And like so, I drew up my library, which for me is an indicator of settling down, of everyday life. The very presence of a library granted me a sense of stability, a false sense no doubt, but I was living through an era and age that conflated reality with wishes and dreams! Six months later, it was time to leave Morocco. I had to travel to Czechoslovakia, from where I would head to Beirut one month later. I had to leave my library behind in Rabat.
I tried to cram as many of my treasured books as possible into my bags, but no suitcase can hold a library. Nevertheless, I distributed the books of my library to Moroccan and Iraqi friends and departed with one suitcase, which held as many significant titles as it could.

I did not put together a library in the month I spent in Prague, but the books that I did bring along quickly passed hands to friends passionate about Arab writers. They would say, “Keep your books here, for you are headed to Beirut, the library of the Arabs!” Beirut was everything that I had imagined and dreamed of: a city built not of stones but of books! At least that’s how I saw it, even after my perspective became muddled with its other aspects.

To date, I could count three libraries I had curated, so to speak, and had to abandon against my will: Baghdad, Morocco, and what remained in Prague. In my first days in Beirut, I thought to myself, “I should stop counting my losses in libraries – Beirut shall be the horses’ stable.”
What more could an Arab intellectual want from a city? Beirut had to offer books, film, music, art, theatre, and dance even though there was a price a pay, for we danced to the sound of gunshots. I stepped into the city of Beirut in early 1979, when it was enduring the grind of the civil war. The city was split into two, West and East Beirut, and it was in the West that I would live and have my share of the city.
For the most part, Lebanese and Palestinians inhabited West Beirut, but there were also Syrians and Iraqis as well as other Arabs from Morocco and even the Arab Gulf. Each demographic group had brought its own culture, its own books and libraries, to this lawless refuge. In fact, the books of these Arabs in diaspora in Beirut were destructive, in the revolutionary sense. Everyone was in outrage, having fled or been persecuted, so it was only normal that they all had their fair share of uproar, of self-expression in the most extreme and articulate of words. Most of these books had been paid for prior, for political reasons, by the Palestinian and Arab institutions that would take on the expenses to support their culture, their books, to ensure their presence in the Library of the Arabs, on the bookshelves. When it comes down it, the scale of the uproar – the yelling and screaming – increased in these books and in our lives while the extent of thinking, on behalf of the readers, all but diminished. Still, Beirut’s bookstores on Hamra and other streets remained towering places whose books were distinguished in terms of print quality, authorship, and price. There, books were organized elegantly, luxuriously, in a modern way, and the prices were exorbitantly priced. I had to manage with the salary earned by working for one of the Palestinian journals.
I did not have my own place until I got married in Beirut. Prior, I had always staked out a room in an apartment in the so-called Fakhani Republic, the safest neighborhood for Iraqis, relatively speaking, safe from the stalking of the Iraqi mukhabarat, or intelligence. I qualify this statement with relatively speaking because many Iraqis were killed by assassination. Renting a room in a family apartment did not afford me the space to curate a library. Thus, I spent two years in Beirut as my fourth library, consisting of books scattered about and under my desk table and under the bed. For my housemates and friends, it was plundered when I moved out.

With the birth of my daughter Nawar, we needed a space larger than the room. For security reasons, we weren’t able to live independently in a home or outside of the Fakhani Republic neighborhood. So we decided to move to Damascus in late 1980, and I had to gather my belongings, the furnishings of my home, in just two suitcases, one for our and our daughter’s clothes and the other for my and my wife’s books. As to the rest of my books, I left them behind for the room’s new resident just as the resident who preceded me had left behind a Kalishnikov rifle, as if it were a piece of furniture! At the Syrian-Lebanese border, an older guard asked me what I do for a living as he glanced down at the lake of books filling my larger suitcase. I responded, discarding the professional classification of the intellectual or writer, which always complicated matters at borders and airports: “What do I do? Book merchant!”
With this, he granted us entry, and it was the first time that I stepped into a city with the nucleus, small enough to fit into a suitcase, to set up a library!

I spent exactly thirty-two years in Damascus, where I had more than one library, for we moved house sixteen times before I stumbled upon the right place. I move more books and old journals than I did furniture as we relocated from house to house.
Eventually, I rented an office in Damascus for my books and journals since the house had become stifled with mounds of publications. I paid heed – or in truth, I had no choice but to rent an office always larger than my own home to accommodate my collection of books and journals which grew with fantastical speed.

It was in Damascus that my wife was able, for the first time ever, to curate her own library, independent of mine. This was a matter of course because my library had become a mélange of old and rare books, lithography prints, and journals and newspapers, sometimes more than one-hundred-years old!

The collector of books and journals that was my former self reawakened in Syria. It was a habit, or hobby if you will, I acquired from the crates and boxes of my older brother. In those boxes and crates, he stored old books and journals that he had read in his youth, and he never left them to neglect even after he stopped reading. As a child, I would sit in the attic, where we stored furniture and stuff like these crates, trawl through them, and plunge into reading. I woud read Majallet Al-Aalam (World Magazine) and Majallet Al-Hilal (Crescent Journal) alongside Mickey Mouse Magazine! The world of reading dazzled me despite the difficulty I had in understanding and fully apprehending the contents of the publications in my hands.
As I grew older, I developed a penchant for buying old books and journals, a penchant which Damascus revived in me … and my, how refreshing! Let me put it this way: the number of old journals and newspapers, the most contemporary of which was published in the mid-twentieth century, in my library amounted to more than 30,000!

The impetus to make these purchases was the pleasure of knowledge. At first, I used to pick out single journals and magazines, but eventually I would end up buying in bulk.
I was like a gray-haired grocer, or perfumer, who knew exactly what was in stock: I knew what I had and what volumes or issues I was missing.
I never imagined that this costly hobby could become a job: I would receive calls from book sellers, trying to sell me the journals they had in stock, before they would put them up for sale to the sidewalk book vendors. These sellers would offer their items to me first since I paid a higher price.
I would like to quickly touch on my personal library at home: in fact, it comprised the collections of four individuals, each curated by myself, my wife, and my two daughters, Nawar and Shahrazad.
Each member of the family kept a unique library in tandem with the others not only to maintain the intimacy of each parallel collection but also to protect against the onslaught of the new stacks of books and journals I used to add throughout the library, resulting in confusion: we’d lose track of where we located this or that book, whether we needed to climb up the ladder to fetch a title from the higher shelves or to trawl through the books, newly placed on the floor.

Before long, I found myself buying entire libraries.
When someone would offer to sell me a whole library, I would go check it out and buy it, mainly in honor of the several rare books it contained which bookstore owners would never sell as individual items. After all, that’s how and why they sell in bulk or not.
Most of the libraries that were up for sale were extremely specialized. Among them were books printed with lithography, rare first editions, and even manuscripts of moderate value. Then, I figured out that I could sell them to book traders in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, or Kuwait and could rest assured of their fate. The countries in the Arab Gulf began to open public libraries with distinctive rare book collections, that benefitted from expert care and upkeep and that were showcased to the public, even digitally on the web.
I ought to clarify that just because a book is rare does not necessarily mean that it is important. A rare book, or a first edition print, does render a book valuable for those concerned with such matters, but these aspects do not give the book any added epistemological value, particularly since the book is available in subsequent editions.
Book buyers used to pack such books in diplomats’ suitcases to take them out of the country, bypassing the inspection of the government, which forbade the export of manuscripts and rare books. Indeed, such publications were assured a better fate at the public libraries of the Arab Gulf than all the rest that ended up on the sidewalk, particularly in light of the fact that these national libraries had the capacity to care for such publications whereas in Syria the state lacked the competence requisite to upkeep, maintain, and restore them in line with contemporary preservation techniques.

What’s the story behind the private libraries and collections that go up for sale?
There is, actually, a tragic tale behind each and every such library.
Whenever a grandfather or father – whoever owns the given library – passes away, the surviving family members would divide the bequest, including books, which was the least of their concerns. I met folks who would put up for sale their grandparents’ libraries as if they were stacks of lumber or masterworks of art. They’d set conditions on whosoever bought the collection, these people who didn’t even know how to enjoy and benefit from the books in the first place. Some families would offer the libraries for free, just to get rid of them. And then there were those who would toss the books in the dumpsters. Still yet, there were those who would fish out rare books from such places, tidy them up, and then sell them to small book vendors.
The same was true for old journals, too. Generally speaking, they were dirt-cheap because the inheritors wanted, first and foremost, to get rid of them and to avoid having to box them up and carry them out of the house.
In contrast to these heart-wrenching situations, there was once an aristocratic lady who dealt with the library of her grandfather in an extraordinary way: she called me, saying that she was a reader of my magazine, Majallet Al-Ayyam (Bygones Magazine), and had a bunch of journals and magazines from her grandfather. She wanted to offer them to me. So, she came over for a visit, accompanied by her Filipina maid, and with some crates loaded in her car and gave them to me, a most precious and dignified gift. She said that she would never sell her grandfather’s legacy, his heritage. In gifting this heritage to me, she was keeping her grandfather’s spirit alive, for the magazine that I edited would publish the relevant and pertinent contents of this heritage. Such characters, like this lady, are few and far between!

All these years, I would read journals, magazines, and books to learn and satisfy the hunger of my expensive hobby, which takes the lifetime of Noah, patience of Ahab, and wealth of Korah, as the saying goes.
While this saying doesn’t fully apply to me, it does apply to the professional merchants who seek to collect entire and complete volumes of periodicals, such as Majallet Al-Rissaleh (Dispatch Magazine), Majallet Al-Muqtataf (Literary Digest Journal), Majallet Al-Hilal (Crescent Journal), and the journals of the academies and institutes for the Arabic language, archaeology, and what not. Such a merchant and trader would sometimes wait years to acquire a particular number or handful of volumes to complete his own collection so that, afterward, he could sell the complete collection for a much higher price. After rounding off a particular series, he’d immediately set about completing the volumes of another journal, and that is why it feels like he needs the lifetime of Noah, patience of Ahab, and wealth of Korah. As for me, I was looking for something else, something connected to my childhood and my line of work as a journalist. In various and sundry old journals, I found my ambition and uncovered the nuances of politics and culture as well as the transformations our society had undergone. I was looking for images of my country, Iraq, and late on in life of Syria, in these magazines. And then it occurred to me!
I collated such images and photographs and drew them together into two tomes: Kitab Al-Iraq (The Iraq Book) and Kitab Souriyah (The Syria Book). Each book narrated the country’s history through rare photographs, and they sold quite well to individuals as well as governmental and private institutions. They became a decent source of income for me, enabling me to buy even more old newspapers and magazines!
It is the rare and unique quality of these photographs that gives them import. They were published in newspapers and weeklies. Among journalists, there’s a saying that goes, “Nothing is older than yesterday’s news.” I would add that nothing is more rare. No one cares to keep yesterday’s newspapers, so the photos therein get lost – photos that are primary source documents. As far as I know, these two books have maintained photos otherwise lost and forgotten. They also represent a new approach to authorship, one of collating photographs. In sequencing the images, I followed the principles of cinematic montage, of setting scenes, moving from one shot to the next, this subject to that, zooming in and panning out.

Before these two books, I was working on a publication of journalistic extracts from Asharq Al-Awsat and the Emirati Al-Bayan newspaper, in addition to other papers and magazines.
But then I had an idea!
Why not instead publish these selections in a magazine dedicated to enthusiasts of this sort? Why not have a magazine or journal specialized in publishing old extracts?
My archive held the best Arab and international authors. It also contained the best of topics and the rarest of images. What more does a magazine need than editors, a first-class writer, and equally skilled photographers? So I got to work. I consulted my peers and friends, seeking their advice about the project, and most everyone said it would be impossible, citing that journals and magazines were so expensive that only a government or rich institution could fund them, that newspapers and magazines are the only commodities that sell for a price lower than their cost, as we well know in the world of journalism.
So it is a matter of costs. What are the costs? Salaries for the editors and writer? Rent for a building large enough to accommodate them and the magazine’s administrators? Designers and typesetters and printing expenses? The solution was to break this big operation down into smaller parts to overcome these financial challenges.

I gave the matter some thought, and with time I concluded that the editors would not get paid, for they reside on the shelves of my library, the greatest among them having left us on this earth. My daughters Nawar and Shahrazad volunteered to take on the duty of typesetting, with my assistance. I handled matters of design to ensure that the design suited the old, archival content. So all that remained was the cost of printing, which is the most minor expense in any such operation. I printed the first copies at a small printing house and took them to the Syrian Ministry of Information to get the approval of the minister. One of the minister’s aides drafted a report about the magazine, which stated, “It is, in sum, a magazine which shall delight housewives and serve university professors as well as the general readership.”
This sort of praise inspired me to continue my quest to publish the magazine, even after the minister rejected the request to approve its publication, so I had to wait until there was a change in the ministry. And that is what happened: there came a new minister of information, and he approved the publication.
I recall that, when I was in midst of the preparatory phase, I participated in a televised roundtable broadcasted on an Arab network with Samah Idriss, who inherited Al-Adab Magazine. He was complaining about the lack of support for Al-Adab on behalf of Arab states and the impossibility of publishing without state support. He questioned how I was able to publish the first issue of my magazine without support from my government. I took on his challenge, taking as my starting point an unlikely principle in our culture; that is to say, I asserted that the author, writer, or publication survives at the expense of the reader, not that of the state. It is this type of subsistence that grants publications freedom of ideas, of perspectives, as is generally the case in the West. Meanwhile, our publishing tradition is losing this freedom, becoming bound and girdled by the sponsor, be it the state or political group.

I published the first issue of Majallet Al-Ayyam (Bygones Magazine) with a print run of 10,000 copies in 2001. This is a huge print run for highbrow magazines; usually a print run of 1,000 copies suffices for every issue. But I took the risk, the gamble, making calculations according to the law of economics whereby a large supply creates demand. Plus, what mattered to me was to showcase the magazine as frequently and widely as possible before its main funder: the reader.
Typesetter, designer, print manager: I played all these roles in the first issue. I was even the magazine’s courier, or as we say in Syrian dialect, its porter. As soon as the issue dropped in the market, the calls and letters from readers from all around came pouring in, some of them inquiring about the funder of the project. My response: “The funder? It is you!” Indeed, the reader was actually the only funder of the magazine.

With the publication of the second issue of the magazine, I had struck an agreement with distributors to cover eleven Arab countries, and it found the same success abroad as it had in Syria. I was baffled by the phone calls, coming from Morocco, my first place of exile, and also from Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia … all from readers of the magazine! A number of Arab universities subscribed to the magazine since it served researchers and libraries specializing in the conservation and archiving of old books and publications. What’s more, the readership increased so much so that the print run reached 30,000 copies per issue!
As evinced by the phone calls and letters addressed to the magazine, grandchildren began buying it as a gift for their parents and grandparents, resurrecting memories of the old days. Some parents and grandparents did the same exact thing so that their children could see the beauty of bygone days through their eyes.

I was certain that archival material would find success for a limited period but that eventually it would become mundane and until it finally flopped. The idea behind the magazine wasn not to market nostalgia among the readers; rather, mining the past, the bygones, was my way of proposing and putting forth to readers what mattered to me: facts, knowledge, and perspectives. I gave the reader liberty to engage with the subject matter at will. I’d run articles without intervening in the content but simply mentioning the source and date of original publication. My work lay in the selection of the material, which echoed the problems of today’s world, leaving the reader alone to draw conclusions and make such links.
The single, major intervention I made was to standardize and spice up the titles to whet the appetite of readers. Sometimes, I would write a concise introduction, to provide some background material for young readers. The magazine was like any other in its contents and structure: politics, thought, culture, art, interviews, old comics, and even crossword puzzles!

I was curious to know the demographics of the readership: age, nationality, profession. I personally conducted a survey among vendors over a considerable period of time to learn about the readers. To my surprise, women were the top buyers of the magazine, followed by college students and then the youngest demographic group.
I had imagined that most readers would be adults, elderly, and intellectuals since the magazine would fulfill their desire to reconnect with their golden age. But the publication of the magazine falsified this presumption, revealing that in fact adults and older people generally stop reading.

Then, I had the idea to provide a new service to my Syrian readers, a service which would also protected the magazine from the grasp of tyranny over certain subjects. I published an appendix to the magazine, titled Ayyam Al-Sham (Syrian Bygones), dedicated to the modern history of Bilad Al-Sham. The appendix also helped to maintain the diversity, essential to foundations of the magazine.
The success of the appendix was an opportunity to draw in the advertising world of Syria. Eventually, the appendix outgrew the magazine itself, its pages greater in number, due to the advertisements inside.
On the sidewalks, I would pass by the old book and magazine sellers and ask them if they had any old issues of Majellet Al-Ayyam or of its appendix, Ayyam Al-Sham. When they responded, “No,” I was more than full of glee. The people buying the magazine weren’t reselling or getting rid of it after reading, but keeping it.

Thanks to a corrupt administrator in the Ministry of Information, the story of Al-Ayyam came to end like all films and stories that come to an unhappy ending. He called me one day, saying that a decision had been made to prohibit the publication of the magazine in Syria.
But the story did not end there. The pain and anguish that began to unfold in Syria forced me to come to terms with my library and archive, which had become impossible to relocate to another country. What could be done? I couldn’t sell. I had to leave Syria in 2012 just as I entered the country the very first time: books in my suitcase.
I sold my entire archive of magazines, journals, and newspapers to a private Syrian foundation, which had to make little effort to acquire this archive at the cheapest price. I was just like those who sell old libraries and archives: my only concern was to get rid of it. As for the books, I also sold them, to the sidewalk book vendors, and everything returned to where it came from.

What was going through my mind as I gathered and packed up the enormous number of old newspapers, journals, and books?
I know full well that I had achieved what only large, specialist institutions, funded by the government, could afford to undertake. I know that individuals who lack the lifetime of Noah, patience of Ahab, and wealth of Korah will face defeat in such a pursuit. I know that my defeat was certain. It was personal. Because I was an exile in a place that was not my homeland. The hour was approaching, inevitably, to return to my homeland, to reality.
And so it was, and here I am, like an old man reminiscing on the good old days of yore, telling the story to this and that person, nodding my head to all who comfort me, saying, “In exile, you cannot but build on sand. When it shifts, it devours everything.”

The good news is that, ultimately and over the years, I managed to transform most of my archive to something indestructible: I scanned and saved it to hard disks, thousands of gigabytes.
The progress of science and technology manifests the most romantic of dreams: to have a library, its pages in the millions.