My Grandfather and the Bookseller

Literary, Translations, Uncategorized

Written by Abdullah Al-Bayyari and originally published in Romman Magazine

Translated from the Arabic by Dima Masri, published with permission from the author

Free picture (Old books) from

My maternal grandfather was a multilingual reader, and his library, as the tale of loss passed on to me goes, held a large number of diverse books in French, Arabic and English. I did not know the man well. He passed away before I could really know him, when I was still a child. But in my journey to discover myself, my roots and my identities — in which he, with or without approval, has a share — I was destined to meet him at several stations; for I lived enchanted by his shadow in the tale, in the thickness of his silence.

After his passing, my grandfather’s library ended up being sold, most of it given to roaming junk sellers, stuffed into plastic bags and sold by the kilo for a paltry sum— or, more probably, in exchange for other “junk”. I learned of the books’ fate when my relationship with books and writing began to grow as a manifestation of my solitude as a medical student with (almost) nothing in common with my classmates who were amazed by my skill and dexterity as a dentist, despite my loathing of medicine. That solitude praised by Tarkovsky as the source of richness, originality and intellect and which I must have repeated to myself quite often by way of consolation, is the reason I loved Tarkovsky and his films so much. I always thought one day I’ll find a book from that library of his I lost, that I would find a paper written in his unfamiliar script, or perhaps a note on the margin of some page. That has not happened yet, but I have not lost hope.

Cairo had its share of that solitude, and of that relationship and tale, and of that loss. Cairo, that massive city, with all the stories it carries, never ceases to defy my imagination. And imagination is solitude’s best friend. So, my relationship with it was exhausting for both of us, or at least mostly for me. I would wander through Cairo’s neighborhoods searching for the sellers of old books, antiques and used items ranging from appliances to furniture known as roba bika (these roaming traders on donkey-drawn carts are no longer as common a sight as they used to be). And while I did know many of them in neighborhoods like Ma’adi and Masr El-Gedida, Downtown, Masr Al Qadima, Al-Sayidah, Al-Bahr Al-Aazam, Al-Hussein and others, I also know that I only knew but a small portion of them. And this is where my relationship with Cairo grew exhausting: It was as if it were challenging me, first, with the loss of the library, and second, with the lure of the possibility of finding just one of its lost books.

I searched for any sign in any book, scouring without a single clue to help me trace back my grandfather. I did not know my grandfather nor anything about his taste in books. All I know about the tale of loss is that he read widely and in multiple languages. And even this piece of information has been taken hostage by the imagination, conspiring with memory in drawing pain. I do not know if, nor do I think, this confrontation is necessary- at least for now.

I have found many inscriptions in many books on a variety of subjects. Then, I began to feel that I was no longer simply searching for traces of my grandfather through his inscriptions to bring him back. I became certain that my search was not for signs that would give me directions on where to go but rather that these inscriptions were a conversation with him, without even having to use my history as a guide. There was something different about this epiphany that took me back to Carlos Zafón’s first novel, The Shadow of the Wind, from his famous quartet The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, in which he writes:

“This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengthens.”

In Paris, more than 15 years after my grandfather’s death, I walked the boulevard Saint-Michel on the banks of the Seine contemplating the stalls selling old books that lined the sidewalk. I thought to myself, After all that searching in Cairo, could I possibly find a book from my grandfather’s library here? I knew perfectly well that it was almost impossible. There was no chance of that happening, and even if there really was a book from his library here, there was no way I would be able to identify it. But the idea was tempting. Something took hold of me and I responded. I slid my big leather bag off my shoulder, placed it between my feet and started searching through the books. I was possessed by something, something with no sense in it or to it, an inner voice calling out, alone, in that space inside me: Search, you’ll find something. 

I was searching for my grandfather within me, trying to piece him together like a puzzle made of a thousand little pieces. I searched within myself, in the tale of loss, in my memories of him from childhood and of his room overlooking a garden in the Cairo neighborhood of Masr El-Gedida. The temptation of knowing and searching took hold of me and I started gathering every little detail I knew about him. I remembered the photo of Sadat in the living room, his rosewood ebony closet. I recalled the scene of books and the recorder on top of them, his walks through the neighborhood and his friends, even the name of his cigarettes. 

Memories crowded in on me, and I made room for them as my eyes passed over the old books, searching every page in every book, carefully examining them, despite my proficiency in the French language being no match for the subjects of the books I searched through. The quest went on for days and days, long enough to arouse the bookseller’s curiosity. He asked me, ”Are you looking for something specific?” So I told him my grandfather’s story. He laughed and said, “In that case, I don’t think I can help you on your journey but I wish you the best of luck.” This incident was enough for my relationship with the man to develop to the point where he would hand over the responsibility of selling to me while he crossed over to the other bank to smoke a cigarette with a friend.

The same thing happened in every city I passed through: In Berlin, in Frankfurt, in Dijon, in Beirut, in Damascus. In every city and every book, there was something of my grandfather’s spirit. I remember that I even found some books with Arabic inscriptions on their pages. But I have not yet found my grandfather.

Today, and after 10 years of returning from Paris and leaving medicine, I am now a bookseller in a bookstore in Amman. Amman is not Cairo nor is it Paris, but still, I am enchanted by that same magic. Now, though, the magic is not just found on one bank of the book but on both. Here, I am the seller of the books and not just the buyer. True, the bookstore I currently work at sells new, unused books, but I still look at the faces of the people who buy the books, searching for myself, or for a similar story, in them. I wonder, Who is this man or that girl searching for? What soul has touched them, and why? Then I look down at the book in my hand before handing it to the buyer and that same Parisian thought comes to mind: Could this book by Farah Anton I hold in my hand be a new edition of the same book my grandfather may have one day read?