How can a person go through life without stealing or losing a book?
A reflection that brings back a stream of memories and endless stories for those who were raised on forced reading.
Yes, forced reading. Early on, my father allowed me to choose the books I read as long as I wrote down my favorite parts and shared them with him when he returned in the evening.
It became voluntary after I started enjoying the stories, and this was when my first book theft occurred.
Among my father’s scattered library was a book whose pages had turned brown. The Story of Miqdad and Mayasa is a folktale about the popular love story between Mayasa, the daughter of Jaber al-Dahhak al-Kindi, and her cousin al-Miqdad Bin al-Aswad al-Kindi.
I read the story with passion, and in my great admiration I decided to give the book to a classmate so he could share the fascination. On the title page I wrote a dedication that read “To Mufid”. Another classmate who sat next to him in class, Faris, discovered the book later and read my dedication. This was the beginning of a childish joke that led to a serious fall out, because I was afraid it would eventually be revealed that I had stolen the book from my father.
It was the first of many thefts. The Hostage by Zayd Mutee Dammaj was the second novel I remember reading — a copy with a blue cover issued by Dar al-Adab. My father sent it to the village teachers, making sure it passed on from one person to another until it fell apart. Then came Les Miserables, the novel that I could never read as a child. Despite my father’s insistence, the names of its heroes were foreign to me and I found them exhausting to memorize.
Complete works and the beginning of a journey
The first book I ever received as a gift was The Complete Works of Nizar Qabbani. Abdel Nasser al-Yousfi, Head of Media at the University of Taiz, gave it to me when I visited him at his home for the first time. It was my going away gift as I was leaving to study journalism at the University of Sana’a.
In my early years at the university, I became acquainted with a number of colleagues who had caught my attention with their discussions during lectures. Among them are people who became friends, such as Aref Abu Hatim, Aqeel al-Halali, Abdul Ghani al-Mawri. As time passed, I came to learn that Abdul Ghani was fascinated by Nizar Qabbani. One day I visited him in his room at his parents’ place in Sana’a and found a fair sized library for a student in his first year of university. In my enthusiasm I decided to lend him my book. That was 19 years ago, and the book has never been returned.
It was during those university days that I met my lifelong friend, Nabil al-Asidi, who was a year ahead of me. Soon after, we started looking for a room together and found one overlooking a pomegranate orchard in al-Bonia neighborhood. It was a place with unforgettable experiences and memories. After moving in together, we embarked on accumulating as many books as we could. We bought them either on credit from the university kiosk, or with whatever money we made writing for newspapers such as al-Rai and al-Shora.
Later, after nearly seven years of moving from one place to another, from al-Bonia to al-Qiyada, 16th Street, Bab Shu’ub, and finally ‘Tawfiq’s room’ on Rabat Street, he decided to settle down and get married. In the process, he moved all the books to his new home. He was a dictator when it came to books. All he left me were a handful of magazines and some copies of the Alam al-Maarifa book series that I bought on credit from Uncle Ali at the university kiosk.
One day I was at Nabil’s house together with some friends, and facing us in the guest room was his library full of books. Speaking to the majlis, by way of teasing, I told everyone that half of the books in this library belonged to me. Nabil denied it and so I suggested that I pull out a book randomly and read the name written inside the cover. I was lucky — I chose a book, opened it, and found my name written on the title page. For the rest of the evening Nabil tried, without success, to justify taking my books as his own.
Perhaps I will never forgive Nabil for this theft, because my debt to the kiosk haunted me for years, and in the interim Uncle Ali disappeared. For a long time he was nowhere to be found, until one day I ran into him by chance near the kiosk. He told me about his years of work and exile in Saudi Arabia and his return to Yemen — his features said it all. Luckily, I had just received my salary that day, so I withdrew it from a nearby ATM and gave him half after struggling to persuade him. I had to insist that I owed him this money as part of my debt, while he argued that I no longer owed him anything because he closed all his kiosk accounts years ago. He has since passed away.
Poetry and wonder
One of my most memorable stories is of Aref al-Atam, a dear friend and university colleague. One day he invited me to his home and, after an unforgettable countryside lunch, I found myself browsing through his library. As I was looking, I caught a glimpse of the poetry collection Sana’a: Maqāmāt al-Dahsha by Ahmed Dhaif Allah al-Awadi. It was one of my favorite collections, I was fond of the metres and rhythms, and felt compelled to write about it in one of the newspapers.
The copy I had was one of my first books containing the author’s signature. And it was made even more precious by the dedication al-Awadi, then head of the Yemeni Writers’ Union, wrote me.
Still deep in my thoughts, I stood up and reached for the book as Aref watched silently. I pulled the collection from the library and opened the first page, and to my shock it was my copy, signed by the author just as I remembered it. I looked at Aref, who by now had an absurd smile on his face, and asked how the book got there, but he insisted he had no clue.
The university years were when I bought most of my books and then lost, mostly due to my frequent moves between ‘bachelor rooms’. Tawfiq’s room was a special place where I spent the best of times with comrades in the university struggle.
Tawfiq’s room, as we called it, was a room in fenced land on Rabat Street in front of the former headquarters of the Nasserist Organization. It belonged to our friend Tawfiq al-Sharabi, currently head of the Yemeni satellite channel. The room was home to many stories, joys, pains, dreams and aspirations, and its walls have witnessed more than any books can tell. Many who passed through went on to became prominent writers and journalists.
The room ran under strict rules until Tawfiq moved to his marital home, and then the system began to crumble. When I left, it was under the leadership of Abdul Malik al-Fahidi, who later became Chief Editor of al-Motamar Net. At the time I had left a box of books behind and stored it in the basement. After a while, when I went to pick it up, I discovered that the content of the box was distributed between al-Fahidi, Muhammad al-Haidari, who later also worked at al-Motamar Net, as well as others — and I never saw any of those books again.
Why are you selling your books?
Sometime later, I was working as an editor at al-Rai newspaper and lived in a room on al-Dairi Street next to al-Judairi Police Department. I was interested in writing book reviews for al-Thaqafia and had managed to accumulate a decent collection of books, which I distributed on two window sills in my room.
On one occasion I was away for several days, as I often stayed over at friends’ houses. When I came back I was shocked that everything, including all the books, had been stolen and no thief was in sight.
Days later, Hamdi al-Bukari called me, screaming into the phone, “Are you selling your books now?!” Confused, I asked him what he meant. To my surprise he told me that he came across my copy of Ibrahim al-Koni’s novel ‘Ushb al-Layl (Night Grass) at one of the street-side booksellers in Tahrir Square, and my name was written inside. I had bought this novel from Libya nearly 17 years ago, when I was there as a visiting student at Nasser University in Tripoli.
Ahmed Ali — A friend of books
Years after, I was working as a reporter for Okaz newspaper together with my friend Nabil. One day we were taking a ride with Fares al-Saqqaf, Head of the General Book Authority at the time, and he was talking about his ‘Friends of Books’ project. His idea was to try to enlist support from government and military officials, and that Ahmed Ali Saleh, son of the former president, was at the top of his list of future supporters.
Nabil was sitting upfront next to Fares, who was driving the car, and I was sitting in the back. I turned to my side and found two books, one by Noam Chomsky and a foreign book on the Gulf War.
I opened the two books and found a written dedication to Ahmed Ali Saleh by Fares al-Saqqaf. The question that kept coming to mind was whether Ahmed Ali had time to read Noam Chomsky?
At that moment I remembered a sarcastic fatwa from Jamal Anam, a fellow writer. At one of our gatherings he had said that all theft is a sin except for the theft of books.
I grabbed my bag, which had a few copies of Okaz, threw in the two books, and left in a euphoria of stealing something that would have adorned Ahmed Ali’s library.
I read the two books and wrote a review of Chomsky’s book in al-Thaqafia, perhaps to the benefit of some readers.
This was the only theft I committed outside of my close circle of friends.
The book beneath my shirt
Whoever Qknows Hamdi al-Bukari knows how generous both he and his whole family are. Our friendship started 17 years ago, when he graduated from the Department of Journalism. For all the years I have known him, his generosity has known no bounds… except when it came to books.
In the dozens of times I visited his home, I could never infiltrate his library or steal any book, except once. I was over for lunch and asked if he could bring me some Maraq soup before the meal. As he disappeared into the kitchen, I had a few minutes alone with the library and managed to quickly grab Tayeb Salih’s novel Season of Migration to the North.
Throughout the day I struggled with the book, which I had hidden beneath my shirt at the waist. I had lunch with Hamdi in this condition, and the worst part was that he insisted that we spend the afternoon together. Imagine the struggle sitting in the diwan all afternoon with a book under your shirt. When I finally immersed myself in the life of Mustafa Said, the protagonist, it was all worth it.
I never admitted this theft to him until today.
In return, there were always friends whom I knew better than to leave a book unattended in their company.
Among them was Rajih Badi, who, if you ask me, abides by Jamal’s fatwa far more often than I do. Years ago he borrowed my copy of Samarkand, and to this day he has not returned it.
A strange overlooking
Muhammad al-Asadi is wonderful friend of mine who, despite his amazing administrative abilities, strong energy and dedication to what he does, managed to fall victim to his exhaustion. One day, during the National Dialogue Conference, he told me about The Bamboo Stalk, which won the Booker prize that year. We agreed that in exchange I would lend him The Druze of Belgrade, which had won the same prize the year before. And so it was.
His reaction to The Druze of Belgrade was harsh, he could not continue reading it, and asked me to return The Bamboo Stalk. At that moment I told him that I had returned it to him in his office, and he said he couldn’t remember. I insisted and assured him that in the middle of his busyness and hectic schedule he must have forgotten. Although from time to time he would ask about it, he was convinced and in the end I got away with it.
The list of friends who are yet to return some of my books continues. Mohammed al-Dhaheri, a comrade in my profession and friend in hard times, borrowed my copy of Love in the Time of Cholera and never returned it. I believe it will it come in handy today.
Libraries that survived
The only library I never dared to overstep belongs to Muhammad Jassar, Chief Editor of al-Rai newspaper. He was generous and never said no if I asked. One time I asked him for the Collection of Interviews with Nizar Qabbani, and he told me to keep it as a gift. He did the same with The Cultural Cold War and other books. One night I slept at his house, next to his wonderful treasure, but I could not bring myself to touch the books.
Another library that survived belongs to Hassan Abdul Wareth.
I visited him often in his home in Sana’a, and what saved the situation was a tempting agreement between me and him to archive and reclassify all the books in exchange for 25 books that I could choose to keep.
The deal was so tempting that it put a stop to my desire to steal the books. Although, sadly, the circumstances of war prevented us from fulfilling our agreement.
My last theft, in my recollection, took place at Hafez al-Bukari’s library at the Yemen Polling Center. It occurred before I started working at the center, and had come across a book that seemed crucial to me. It was called The Art of Investigative Journalism.
Stories of book thefts are never ending, and perhaps this is not all that happened, but only some of what I can remember.
So remember your stories — and smile without regret.
Ghamdan Alyosifi, a journalist who holds a bachelor degree from the Faculty of Mass Communication, University of Sanaa. He worked as a reporter for several Arab media outlets, including Okaz and Elaph, and was the editor-in-chief of (Rai) newspaper. He managed the website of the National Dialogue Conference and spoke about Yemeni affairs in TV channels as well as international conferences. In addition, he wrote in various local and Arabic newspapers.
A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)