Islam’s Forgotten Booklovers

By Nile GreenMarch 16, 2016

Islam’s Forgotten Booklovers
THOUGH I’VE NEVER BEEN to Baghdad, where Muslim booklovers gathered on al-Mutanabbi Street till a huge car bomb exploded there in March 2007, I’ve visited most other countries of the Middle East. And everywhere I’ve been, I’ve sought out shops, stalls, and roadside stacks of books. My earliest encounter with the booksellers of the Middle East came on a visit to Istanbul as a 17-year-old. Used to spending weekends browsing the dank Victorian bookshops of the Midlands, I stumbled upon a book market in a caravanserai, the Sahaflar Çarşisi. Centuries earlier it had been a Byzantine paper mart. Though I couldn’t even read their titles back then, their covers looked so bright and beautiful. I bought a crimson Qur’an with a traditional ornamented case-binding and for the next month carried it all over Europe by train. A couple of years later, I visited Delhi for the first time. Seven hundred years before Lutyens rebuilt it for the Raj, Delhi was the shelter of literary refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion of Persia. There, in the crowded gullies around the Sufi shrine of Nizam al-Din, I found a copy of a book I had kept out on loan for much of my first year in college: R.A. Nicholson’s edition of Rumi’s Dīvān-i Shams-i Tabrīzī. Though Rumi hadn’t fled to Delhi — his family instead escaped the Mongols westwards to Asia Minor — his poems have been read, and sung, in Nizam al-Din’s shrine there for centuries. I carried that copy of the Dīvān around for another summer by train.

Already the pattern was set: almost every summer since then has seen me poking around bookshops in far corners of the Muslim world. For several years, I spent a lot of time in Iran, a country that prints more books than the entire Arab world. No one seemed to be reading Lolita, but the streets around Tehran University were filled with books on a startling range of topics. Censorship aside, and in part because Iran doesn’t hold to international copyright laws, just about anything is quickly translated, published, and available. Since I was there around the time the Taliban blew up Bamiyan, across the eastern border, the biggest surprise to me was the number of books about Buddhism. Reading Siddhartha in Tehran.

The place that surprised me most, though, was Kabul. Even though I was writing a book on Afghan literature and had a fair idea of the wealth of Afghanistan’s intellectual life, I was still astonished by the scores of bookstalls in the streets. Though I went to the shop of the “Bookseller of Kabul” that Åsne Seierstad made famous, the dusty Dari pamphlets being hawked on the roadsides were of more interest to me. Since I was leaving by plane rather than train, I filled a huge suitcase with such chapbooks. I don’t think any westerner had done this before, because they prompted much suspicion at Kabul Airport and long searches with sniffer dogs. But the most moving moment of that trip was my Afghan wife taking me to the Baihaqi bookshop she used to go to every Friday as a schoolgirl. Unlike the Victorian terraces that housed the bookshops of my own schooldays, Baihaqi is housed in one of Kabul’s modernist architectural gems, all glass walls and angular concrete. It was built as the literary space of progress, not heritage.

Most of my textual travels have been solo missions, though. Just as well, because I can tax the patience of the keenest bibliophile. And though Kabul was full of surprises, the city I remember as having the most fantastic bookshops lies over the Khyber Pass in Pakistan: Peshawar. There seemed to be copies of just about every obscure text ever printed on the history and exploration of Central Asia, some recently pirated, others oddly preserved since the end of the raj. Since I was planning to travel overland from the Khyber Pass back to England, I bought only a few books to carry with me. I shipped bales of others home, sewn up in cheap linen and sealed with wax in the inimitable style of the Indo-Pak parcel. When I returned home six months later, depressed that my adventures were over, those parcels were my consolation. Sitting in my Los Angeles study almost 20 years later, I still have on the shelves around me the books that I bought that winter in Peshawar. One of them is Sir Aurel Stein’s Wall Paintings from Ancient Shrines in Central Asia published in 1948, “under the Orders of the Government of India.” Though a hardback, it still has the dog-eared corner caused by its three months buried under sacks of god knows what in a container ship from Karachi. There are dozens and dozens of other such books around me, carried from Kabul, Kashgar, Cairo … When I open one of them, something always falls out: the stub of a train ticket, a cutting of local news, a forgotten note.

Though they’re all of value to me, I don’t have many “valuable” books. But I did once find an American first edition of Joyce’s Ulysses in Jerusalem. And from the Muslim booksellers of Bombay, I bought some old Urdu lithographs with fabulous illustrations of towering jinns, Persian fairie queens, and the beardless khan of Cathay. My favorite is the classic Qissa-yi Chahar Darvish, the tale of four dervishes, in the early edition used to teach “Hindustani” to Englishmen two centuries ago. I also have what a book dealer’s catalog might try to market as a unique miscellany of Sufi hagiographies, Indo-Persian and Urdu. I collected these from shrines and stalls in small towns all over Pakistan and India. The stories they tell reveal an entirely different Muslim world than that which destroyed al-Mutanabbi Street, an Islam more fantastical than fanatical.

But Muslims’ books were never only religious. Back in the 10th century, the Baghdad bookseller al-Nadim compiled a fihrist, or catalog, of every book that ever passed through his shop. We still have that catalog today, and it shows that even then there was an eager market for Arabic storybooks, cookbooks, science books, and (whichever of the two now seems less likely) joke books and sex books. We don’t know if there were any comic books. But the witty, satirical, and egomaniacal poet al-Mutanabbi (his name means “the would-be prophet”) — and the street named after him — should remind us, in these bleak times, of the literary, critical, avant-garde, and unorthodox voices that have always been part of Muslim societies. Books and bookstalls are meaningless without them.


Nile Green is Professor of History at UCLA. His latest book is The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austen’s London.

LARB Contributor

As Ibn Khaldun Endowed Chair in World History at UCLA, Nile Green brings global history into conversation with Islamic history. He has researched and traveled in around 20 Muslim countries, including Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Syria, and Yemen. His many books include The Love of Strangers: What Six Muslim Students Learned in Jane Austens London, Global Islam: A Very Short Introduction, and How Asia Found Herself: A Story of Intercultural Understanding. Green also hosts the podcast Akbar’s Chamber: Experts Talk Islam, which is available on all major platforms.


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