Home is where the books are

Nowhere is the phrase that the pen is mightier than the sword more apt than in describing the two Educational Bookshops on Salah Ad-Din Street at the heart of East Jerusalem. Not only do the shops offer a treasure trove of interesting and thought-provoking literature but to visit is to step inside the warm familiarity of a family-run business in its third generation.

I met Mahmoud Muna last year when he taught my Arabic course at the bookshop. I dropped in for a chat about the history of the bookshop and the important role it is playing in East Jerusalem.

Mahmoud’s father, Ahmad founded the bookshop in 1984 at the same premises that had hosted the prior Palestinian Educational Bookshop. This was run by Edward Said’s family and was shut down in 1948 during the ‘Nakba’[i]. When Ahmad came along in 1984, he adopted the name as a mark of respect but wasn’t allowed to include the term ‘Palestinian’ as it was illegal at the time.

The bookshop included a range of Arabic titles with some English books, but Mahmoud explained that this changed in 1989 with the start of the First Intifada[ii]. Journalists flocked to East Jerusalem and the demand for English literature about the occupation grew. This increased further in 1994 after the signing of the Oslo Accords[iii] and the bookshop has only grown in popularity ever since.

This is a family business in the true sense of the word. Four of the six Muna brothers are employed full-time across the bookshops (which also include the American colony shop). The founding father is still involved, and the younger generation are also regulars behind the counter. Mahmoud sums this up by saying ‘our board meeting is our dinner time every night. That is when we sit round and discuss new ideas’.     

One of these ideas, was the expansion of the business in 2009 into its current premises allowing a separation of the English and Arabic bookshops, and the space to serve coffee and cakes. When the grandson of the founder, Ahmad, comes in balancing two large and delicious looking cakes, I ask where they buy them from. ‘We make them’ he responds with a raised eyebrow, as if it was blasphemous of me to have suggested otherwise.

Great coffee and homemade cake

The café now carries its own reputation, and this gives people a reason to linger. Two girls walk in and order coffees as they enquire about the new edition of the Walking Palestine book. Word has spread that this useful handbook of local hikes will hit the shelves again soon and as we’re discussing it, the door swings open and the author walks in. This is community! And it is this which makes the bookshop special.

I’m intrigued by how the shop navigates the challenging political context and avoids drawing unwanted attention to itself. Mahmoud acknowledges the lack of avenues for discussion in East Jerusalem and how books often provide an opening for these conversations. The shop has worked hard to fill some of this void. They regularly organise social and cultural events which bring authors and readers together. These are never overtly political and with a shrug and a wry smile Mahmoud says ‘we’re just talking about books’.

A fundamental part of the shop’s ethos is that everyone is welcome. Mahmoud proudly shows me an email he received the day before from a Jewish man who had visited the shop. He praised the atmosphere and collection of books but lamented on the abuse he received on his way to the shop for wearing a kippah[iv]. This shows that the inclusiveness approach of the shop is still far from being the norm in the wider environment.  

Mahmoud hopes that places like the bookshop will start to create the foundation for a society where people can live beside each other. Commenting on the shop’s presence on the street he says ‘we are the first to open and the last to close. We take pride in that. When the bookshop has that role, it is a city that presents hope’.

The Educational Bookshop is open every day from 0900-1800 and can be found at No. 19 and 22 Salah Ad-Din Street. They also run the book shop at the American Colony Hotel. Pop in and say hello!

[i]  Nakba (meaning ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic) is the Palestinian term for the displacement of many thousands of Palestinians during the creation of the State of Israel.

[ii] The First Intifada was a period of Palestinian sustained resistance to the occupation between 1987 – 1993.

[iii] The Oslo Accords are a set of agreements between the Government of Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The Oslo I Accord was signed in Washington, D.C., in 1993.

[iv] A Kippah is a brimless cap, often worn by Jewish men, to fulfil the requirement that their head should be covered. 

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