Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

Happiness is a good bookshop

I went to one of my favourite bookshops yesterday.

I have various favourites around the world. One is the fabulous Shakespeare & Co in Paris. One was the late lamented Silver Moon on Charing Cross Road in London. But despite its rather dour name, the Educational Bookshop on Salah ed-Din Street in East Jerusalem has a long-standing place in my top five. It’s always had a fantastic range of political, historical, cultural cookery, linguistic, art… and the list goes on… books, in English and other European languages, as well as Arabic for its home market.

So I was almost brokenhearted when I walked in and found only plain-covered Arabic textbooks and a lot of stationery. ‘Did you get rid of your foreign books?’ I asked the owner plaintively. He gave me one of those deadpan responses that pass for a joke in Palestine. ‘Some guy came and bought them all and took them across the road,’ he said.

I’m far too buttoned-up and British to cope well with this brand of Palestinian humour, so I wasn’t sure what was coming next. I knew something was coming. I’ve also known plenty of examples of shops with well-established names getting ripped off by imitators. Maybe that’s what we had here?

He grinned and said, ‘come with me, I’ll show you.’

Leading me back out into the blazing sun of the ongoing heatwave, we crossed the road. And there, oh wonder of wonders, is a beautiful shiny new Educational Bookshop. Stuffed to the gills with all the lovely books I had come searching for, and many more. It had every Palestinian map and guide you might wish for, vast ranges of politics and poetry. It also has wifi, a cafe with amazing juices topped with sorbet, a room downstairs for discussions, literary salons, book launches and film showings. I almost cried. Maybe I could live in a small hole in the basement and spend the rest of my life here?

Not only this, but once I explained the purpose of my visit (working on a new Bradt Guide to Palestine), and once I spotted not one but FIVE copies of Sharyn and my book Gaza: Beneath the Bombs on the shelves, I was being manoeuvred over to the desk to sign copies, under the clicking camera of Mahmoud Muna. I’m still at the ‘new author’ stage. I find these things embarrassingly exciting. It’s shallow to care about this stuff so close to the grinding oppression of Silwan, so I’m shallow and middle-class. I try.

Imad Muna and his brothers have run the original Educational Bookshop and this new branch for a quarter of a century. It’s great to see that, in this age of independent bookshops closing and being bought out, the Muna family are apparently having a very different experience.

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