The Bookseller of Jerusalem

So many things to still unpack out of my head from the Israel trip – I expect the stories are going to keep dribbling out over the next couple of weeks as I find time to cobble together the right words. For now, here’s one small vignette I’ve been trying to get out:

Entrance to the bookstoreMunther’s smile would give Kafka pause to doubt. He seems to live in the moment, with the serenity of a man well used to living under the volcano.

“You’re Munther?”

The smile widens a little, apologetically, and he lifts his shoulders. I’m almost expecting him to say “You were expecting maybe Omar Sharif?”

I introduce myself and say: “I’m told you have quite a story.”

He chuckles. “Look me up on the internet. It’s all there.”

I tell him I have, and he’s impressed, seemingly touched.

A beat passes, then he invites me in, leading me down a well-lit corridor to the one-room bookstore.

“So, come in, come in – look around. Is there anything specific you’re looking for?”

He’s famous, in certain circles, just for still being here. Born in East Jerusalem in the 50’s, he, like most Arabs there, became a “permanent resident” of Israel after it took control of area after the 1967 war. But he lost that status by going to the United States to study. These days, he’s legally a “tourist” in the city of his birth; for most of the past 10 years, he’s had to leave the country every three months to get his visa renewed. Last year, Israeli authorities announced that they would issue no more tourist visas, and he would have to leave for good; after a legal battle that involved letters of support from Booker Prize authors and Nobel laureates, they relented, and Munther has a bit of a reprieve. Things aren’t settled – not by any means; his application for permanent residency, “on humanitarian grounds” is still under consideration. But the Bookseller of Jerusalem is breathing a little easier.

With that background, I had to visit. And after all, books, you know?

The shop itself is tiny, occupying one room down a hallway in the Jerusalem sandstone “Palm House” of the American Colony Hotel. The Palm House was built in the 1870s by Pasha Rabah Effendi El Husseini, and turned into a hotel in 1902. It is surrounded by lush gardens that serve as a neutral oasis where diplomats from both sides of the green line feel at home; as a result Munther can count no less than Tony Blair, Kofi Annan and Jimmy Carter among his clientele.

Unlike the modern American interpretation of “bookstore”, there’s no place to sit, except at the one swivel-seat chair behind the desk in the corner – and that’s Munther’s. There are no overstuffed reading chairs, no espresso bar with biscotti, no wall of indigenous handicrafts sustainably made by happy natives. Just books. And people who love books. Including some people who write them.

InsideMunther introduces me to the sole patron perusing the central table. He introduces him by first name and points to the man’s latest novel. It’sone of those 600-page semi-fantasy fiction works set in Europe of some previous century; the third book, I think he said, of the series. Apparently well-received, and the author is justifiably proud. We chat a bit about writing, about how I’m trying to write more, and the man says “You just have to sit down and do it. How do you think I come up with this?” He hefts the book and hands it to me. I thumb through it, dense with crossbows and castle towers, knowing that the proper thing to do is to buy the thing and ask him to inscribe it for me. Really, that’s what courtesy demands – begs for. But god, I know I could never read something like that, no matter how good it was, and can’t meet his eyes as I murmur appreciation of his work and place the enormous paper brick back on the table.

But we continue talking, the three of us, about life in Jerusalem, about what makes for a good bookstore (many prominent authors apparently consider this the only good English-language bookstore in the city). Dan – embarrassingly, I’ve even forgotten his name, but I’ll call him “Dan” – says that what he loves about this place is that he can come in and say “There’s a book I’m looking for – I think it came out just in the last couple of years. It had a red cover – or maybe it was blue? But it began with the word “The”, and…”  And Munther will, without hesitation, reach to a shelf behind his head and say “This one?”

Munther smiles, clearly gratified at the propagation of this legend he’s cultivated. He knows I’m a storyteller – we are all storytellers, the three of us, and he knows I’ll take this story with me, and tell it to others. His future – the visa, his residency, the continued existence of the Bookstore of the American Colony hang over his head like the sword of Damocles. But he seems to live contently, knowing that his story, the story of the Bookseller of Jerusalem, will live on.

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