Beirut has as many bookstores as it does bullet holes in its concrete walls. There's an old saying around the Middle East that goes, “The Egyptians write, the Lebanese publish and the Iraqis read.” Knowing this and seeing all of those bookstores scattered around the city, I knew that my time in Beirut was also a time to stock up.
I went to Beirut under a variety of guises: journalist wanting to see how people live, photographer wanting to capture a city molded from French and Arab influences and as a pilgrim wanting to venture into the Northern Lebanese mountains to visit Khalil Gibran's grave. The bars on Hamra Street helped me to answer the first part of my trip, the side streets the second. B'sharri, where Gibran's grave is, came towards the end of the trip, the Israeli fighter jets breaking international law overhead that day being the only thing that marred an ice blue sky. The whole time though, as I wandered and looked I saw bookstores everywhere. Small ones, without signs, tucked into alleys lit only from the inside. Large independents and large Arab chains thrusting themselves out into the foot commerce while shoe-shine boys dragging their boxes along behind them walked in front of the street displays. Outside of one, near Jalmeeze, a rose seller sat on top of a crate, her front tooth missing, asking if I wanted a rose to take home to my Syrian wife. “I'm not Syrian,” I told her. “American.”
“Does it matter?” she said.
The bookstores of Beirut are like the city's street signs: trilingual. Arabic, French and English. The bookstores and street signs as physical symbols of the city's history, the scars of its colonial past, its signpost towards an unknown future.
In between barroom discoveries, military checkpoints and near dawn dancing to Umm Kalthoum covers, I dug through the stacks in the bookstores. I bought all the out-of-print Arab writers translated into English that I could find and discovered some new ones for myself. I spent a rainy afternoon drinking Almaza lager beneath a green awning on Hamra reading Tayeb Saleh wondering where his Nobel was. I knew that Beirut took risks and published books banned in other Arab countries. I scoured used bookstores for Abdelrahman Munif, banned across the entire Arabian Gulf, and tracked down copies of Alhem Mosteghanemi. Each store I entered deepened the sense that I had that good bookstores held a window into understanding a city. The trilingual nature of Beirut's bookstores told me much about Beirut's citizens, the large poetry sections in each told me much about the Lebanese. And these bookstores were deep. Books everywhere, piling on top of each other on floors, windowsills and chairs with all of the available shelf space used up. Deep stocks for the demand. A demand that at night, on rooftop cafes with my sheesha in hand I would watch as kids, adults and couples read over dinner or with a beer. Bars had quotes from books written on the walls, a cab driver recited Taha Hussein to me.
Two days before I left I was wandering the back streets shooting pictures in the dying light of the afternoon. I followed an old lady up the sloping hill of a nameless street, shooting the flowerpots. I crested the hill and looked towards the bottom of the street. It ended at an intersection. Why not?
Just before I hit the intersection I noticed a small bookstore across the street. Small isn't right. Tiny. It was a box stuffed to the gills with books. Home.
I descended a half dozen steps and pushed the door open, knocking over a stack of books in the process. “Te Kalaf,” a voice said. “Wa ya te kalafeeyah,” I answered and restacked the books. The aisles, all three of them were as wide as I was, my shoulders brushed the walls of books on either side of me. French was against the far wall, English to the left and Arabic to the right. I went towards the Arabic section.
It was all there.
All that I wanted.
Seeing that the books were stacked three deep on the shelves, I began pulling books out to see how they were arranged. As I did so I saw how thoroughly the store was stocked. I knew then that they would have to have a copy of Al-Ma'ari in Arabic, the blind Syrian poet from the 1100s. I wanted in Arabic his: “But truth still hides her face in hood and veil./Is there no ship or shore my outstretched hands/May grasp, to save me from this malicious sea?”
Blue cloth. Gold lettering on the spine: Al-Ma'ari. I nearly leaped.
“The Arab Socrates, no?”
I turned to see a small man, his face narrow and intelligent, standing behind me.
“Yes,” I replied in Arabic.
“Ayad,” he said, extending his hand.
“Is mi William,” I said.
He tilted his head to one side. My accent.
“Anna Amerikiya,” I told him.
“Ah. I wondered. Your accent is almost Palestinian,” he said in English.
“And you can read Al-Ma'ari?”
“A little. It's tough, its old Arabic as you know, but I want to have it.”
“And you should. Have you read Rabih Alameddine?”
“But you must,” Ayad said, turned and disappeared. I went back to the stacks, trying not to turn around too often in fear of knocking something off the shelves, and looked for a copy of Ibn Tarafa's “Mu'Allaqat” where he says, “Come off it! you who tell me not to fight &/ not to fuck, if ever I did quit,/could you offer me immortality?” Beautiful words for before 570 a.d.
Ayad returned, offered me a cigarette and handed me a copy of Alameddine's “Koolaids,” a book he described as being “incredibly important.” I opened it and began reading aloud.
We spent the next hour going back and forth between the Arabic and English sections, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea, reciting our favorites, swapping recommendations. As we read the stacks felt like they were closing in, each book demanding my attention. But the enclosure felt comforting, as if each new discovery could take me to the place I was looking for.
He asked what I was doing in Beirut. I told him I was a journalist. He smiled and said he was a poet. He went to a corner shelf, near the Arabic section and pulled down a book of his poems. He read to me. His lines were clipped and rang like ejected shotgun shells hitting glass floors. He spoke of the loss and the woman, that sharp corner of the night. Of cheating and knowing. Of the thing just beyond the fingertips.
He finished, smiled, lit another cigarette and inscribed the book to me. He shook his head when I asked him to add it to the stack of books I had going on the register.
Later, he slid a business card into his book and packed my purchase up. We shook hands and I walked up his stairs, past a stack of books and out into the falling rain, leaving the magic behind me just this one time.
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Photographs and Essay By: William Hastings