Saturday, 9 January 2010

Bookshops in Jerusalem #1

Congratulations to the owners of the Educational Bookshop in (Arab) East Jerusalem. For 35 years the owners have run an Arab language bookshop on Salah Ad-Din Street with a growing English language section. Now they have made the bold step of opening an entirely English language shop and cafe opposite the old premises, which will itself be renovated, reverting to Arab books and stationery only.

The shop is attractive, very "Western" in a Middle Eastern Street, but clearly Arabist. The stock concentrates on the Middle East conflict and Arab fiction but also includes English magazines as diverse as the People's Friend and the New York Review of Books. The cafe is a hybrid of West and East. The new premises opened six weeks ago, and is already busy. I asked Iyad Muna, who runs the place together with his brother Imad, who they see as their market. He said that he expects only 10-20% of the customers to be local Arabs, English students and academics, with the majority of the custom coming from the many Non-Governmental Organisations based in the area, ex-pats and tourists. The books are expensive by local standards - or indeed for us right now because of the exchange rate. Israel also charges vat on books, and there is carriage, but the Muna brothers hold down prices by ordering in quantity and getting good discounts. They've spent four or five years planning the project and deserve to succeed.

Thought the bookshop is clear on its views it also stocks books by Israeli novelists like Amos Oz and David Grossman and even books from a Zionist perspective. Given the lack of good English language bookshops "on the other side", did they expect many Jewish Jerusalemites to shop there? Iyad felt that would not happen, citing a psychological barrier preventing even liberal academics coming over. I was reminded of the late Anwar Sadat's 1977 speech to the Israeli Parliament, the Knesset, where he referred to "... a psychological barrier between us. A barrier of suspicion. A barrier of rejection. ... A barrier of hallucination around any deed and decision." Iyad also said that most Jewish Israeli English language readers will order through the Internet, but in East Jerusalem postcodes and in some cases street names are absent making it impossible to order on line.

I left with a substantial order for our handful of books on the Middle East, including our two Jonathan Wilson novels, and the advice from Iyad to publish more Middle Eastern books.
You can find something on the Educational Bookshop on, but at the moment the site only shows the old shop. An updated site is planned.

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