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?

Read and Change Your Life


Abu Ismail Masri grew up in Nablus, Palestine and had two sons and two daughters; he died of illness a few weeks after he returned home from training to fight with the Turks, when the younger of his two sons, Omar Suleiman Masri, was seven years old. His wife, Amina Bakir, used to sing, in the presence of her granddaughter, “ya ghazalleh kaif aani abaadook?” which translates into “Oh dear (literally, gazelle), how did they keep me away from you?” Amina Bakir, died at the age of 85, but according to her granddaughter, I’timiad, she cried over the loss of her husband every day until the day she died. She worked in many fields to support her four dependent children; she dyed fabrics, sewed, cooked, and she also learned to read on her own, for her own satisfaction. During that day in Nablus, people made a living doing mundane things, such as sewing dresses and making Knafeh (a traditional Nabulsi sweet); they lived a simple life. But a simple life is not one that Omar would be blessed with.

It’s the first day of Eid al Fitr; I accompany my father and grandmother to visit my father’s aunt’s husband, Abo Moeen. I enter their apartment on the third floor of a middle-aged building in Amman. I am introduced as Kamal’s daughter. Abo Moeen asks me what my name is and I reply, “Dima.” To that he responds,”deematon samhato alqiyadi sakoobo yastagheeth biha althary al makroob” a verse from a poem by Abu Tammam from the Abbasid era, describing dima (which means a raining cloud) as a blessing that answers the call of the thirsty soil for rain.

Abu Moeen, as Omar is now called, is taken care of by his daughter, I’timad. He turned 100 years old this year; his eyes turned blue from old age, and his memory remains as strong as it was when he was as young as his great granddaughter. He has hundreds of books in his library, which is an empty bedroom with old marble floor except for floor-to ceiling dark brown shelves covering one of the walls, with topics ranging from poetry to history to traditional ululating‏ in Palestine, and still hundreds more packed in cardboard boxes from the time he left home. Tell him your name as I did, and he’ll recite a verse from a poem about it. Abo Moeen has the gift of knowledge and wisdom I hope to grow old and acquire; I believe he has gained much of his insight from reading.

As a young child Omar was kicked out of school for being mischievous but always carried a book he was reading in the back pocket of his pants. As Abo Moeen tells me, people of the town would see him as he passed by and say, “There goes the kid who taught himself on his own.” His older brother took hold of the family business of importing tobacco, and he put his young brother in charge of the dirty, risky work of getting the goods while he gambled away the family money. Abo Moeen continues to tell me that one night, while he was climbing one of the mountains to get the illegally imported tobacco in, he got caught, and at sixteen years of age was sent to prison. He remained a day and was let out, back to his books. His love of learning that he had perhaps inherited from his mother helped him overcome the challenges in his life.

I ask him for a book that would tell me more about the history of Palestine and the conflict with Israel. He lists names of authors and books I have never heard of. His daughter takes me to the library to pick out a book on Palestine. I pick one called “Palestine its history and struggles” by Najib Al Ahmed. He asks me which book I had chosen I repeat the name multiple times, for he has poor hearing. Once he had registered what I had said, he boldly accuses the author of being a liar. I asked him why, my laugh clear in my voice, he retorts, “They’re all liars and betrayers. History is always written from the winner’s point of view.” I didn’t want to read the book anymore, I wanted facts about what had really happened, when I expressed this to him he replied by saying, “No read it, read it and see for yourself what you think of it,” teaching me not to take everything I hear for granted, but rather to decide for myself.

During another visit to Abo Moeen’s house the theme of his talk was the importance of knowledge and the insignificance of your name to who you are. He kept repeating a verse from a peom by Ali bin Abi Taleb in between stories to emphasize what he means by, “kon ibna man sheata wa iktasib adaba,” which roughly translates into, “Be whoever’s son you want and gain literature (knowledge).” In a society where much of who you are and who you become depends on your family name and their place in that society, Abo Moeen sees the true meaning of the self; it is not how much money you have, the name given to you by your parents, or the clothes you wear, it is you, your thirst for knowledge, for truth, and living up to your potential.

Maybe it was that books took Omar to a different life that made him fall in love with reading; it would take his mind off a life without a father, and no real guidance. Maybe books were his only teachers and that is why he held onto them so tightly. In his teens he was kicked out of school but not off the desk of the eternal student. As the years went by he got married, left his wife and kids, came back to them, worked as a tailor, left his work, moved to Jordan, books were the only thing that remained by his side, always.