The pulse of a generation, their ideas, thoughts and discoveries are often best preserved and explored through their writings.
However, over the years, many of the great Arab authors – as well as the works of smaller, lesser-known ones – have had their work lost as their books went out of print.
Books from the 19th and early 20th century on the pre-Islamic era, Islamic periods and “golden civilisation”, the era of pan-Arabism, colonialism and independence and more can still be found in souqs across the country and some libraries. But if you’re looking for something in particular on any of the subjects, your first stop might be a tiny bookshop in Dubai known as Dar Al Fadeela.
Tucked between cafes and trade stores, just behind the Hyundai car showroom in the bustling neighbourhood of Deira, the small bookshop has rows and rows of rare, reproduced Arabic books from the past few decades, some dating back to the 1920s, covering subjects from poems on love, country and death to various authors’ discussions on identity, foundations of nations and their struggles and what the future holds for Arabs.
With the larger main branch in Egypt, the 24-year-old bookstore in Dubai boasts that it has books on “everything to do with Arabs”.
On first impressions, all the books look the same, as they have all been bound up in a standard brown cover, with their titles printed in gold or black fonts. It’s almost intimidating to look through them.
But then, on a closer inspection, the hidden treasures of the written word come alive.
“Young Arabs have no idea who some of our culture’s most important figures and writers are,” says Mohammed Al Sayed, who is from Egypt. He has been selling books at the Dar Al Fadeela for more than 19 years.
The shop sells originals, as well as photo-copies of the originals, bound up as books.
The least expensive book is Dh100 and the prices go up to several thousand depending on the year and the quality of the book.
Pointing to a whole row of “dawaween” (poetic collections), Al Sayed says: “All these names are Latin to them. They may have heard of the poets and writers whose work was translated into English, but not these. These books contain words that have died, as no one reads them.”
But Al Sayed has noticed a change in recent years.
“People are interested again in the old books. They want original old Arabic books,” he says, though not for reasons he agrees with.
“Actually, they are not buying the new books. They are not interested in reading Arabic in general.”
He regularly has customers asking for either an old Quran or old books relating to a particular country.
“A customer from Qatar would ask for Qatar-related books, and a Syrian would ask for Syrian ones, and so on,” he says. “But they are not always too interested about the content, rather just about owning a nice-looking old book. Which is a shame.”
He picks up a thick Arabic dictionary, dating back to 1938, and browses through, looking for words that have long stopped being used.
“There is a whole new research just here in this one book,” he says.
There are books on the area, such as a copy by Dr Ibrahim Al Shareqi, which dates back to 1968, titled Highlights of the Arabic Gulf, with photos and discussions of the different nations, including what would become the UAE.
Then there’s a copy of a 1946 book on the names of horses, in Islamic and pre-Islamic times, tracing their ancestral family trees. Packed with Islamic references, poems and proverbs, the book take its readers back into a world of tribes and their horses, which often were tribesmen’s most important possessions.
There are some books that are undated with the authors’ names missing, but the yellow-brown, deteriorating pages give hints at the ages and lend an ancient touch and look.
“You just come to me and ask about any topic, and I assure you it has been written on before. People get surprised when they think they have this original idea and then they find out it has been written about over 50, if not 100, years ago, and it has been written many times,” says Al Sayed.
One of the major challenges for finding Arabic books is the quality of the reprints and sometimes even the quality of the originals themselves.
Dr Hasan Al Naboodah, a professor of history at UAE University in Al Ain, who is also the dean of its libraries, says that while the library may have old copies and originals, they are hard to read.
“When the production is bad from the start, when the original was printed in bad quality, it is difficult to have good copies of it, unless it is completely revamped and republished from the start,” he says.
Taha Hussein (1889-1973) was one of the most influential 20th-century Egyptian writers and intellectuals; one of his books, The Future of Culture in Egypt (Arabic), dated 1938, is an important book that “every student” should read, but it’s difficult to do so, says Dr Al Naboodah.
“It is just a very bad print. I have one at home, and the library here at the university has one. But students take one look at the font and the layout and they get discouraged.”
With many of the new generation of Arabs losing their language, reading old books is one way to revive interest in Arabic.
“There is so much wealth and beauty in our poems and stories. Once they go past the fact it is not printed on glossy pages and in the best font, they will discover an amazing world of thinkers and ideas,” says Al Naboodah. “Arabic literature and poetry is very rich and enjoyable.”
As for Emiratis, the professor suggests reading the work of the Emirati poets Al Majidi bin Dhaher and Rashid Al Khader.
“There is a lot of wisdom to be gained from their poems and you learn about how they observed nature and their experiences within their culture and environment.”
Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, Vice President of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, had dubbed bin Dhaher as the “Al-Mutanabbi of nabati” – nabati is a form of poetry that uses local, everyday dialect, and Al-Mutanabbi (915-965), remains one of the Arab world’s greatest poets.
Poetry is an important oral heritage within the UAE and Arab culture in general, but it’s rare for the new generation to memorise older and classical pieces. But others can recite lines found in some of Dar Al Fadeela’s rarest books without batting an eyelid.
“We used to sleep and eat poetry,” says Al Sayed. “All Arabs before knew their classics.”
Both in their 50s, Al Sayed and Al Naboodah recall childhoods immersed in reading books by the sea or after school. They both believe that reading helped them maintain their mother tongue and inspire their minds. They would reread the same books and would memorise poems as a pastime.
“Now, there is too much selection of books, mostly English, and it is a generation of social media where they want quick and short answers,” says Al Naboodah.
Regardless of the effect of the internet, Twitter and e-books, Al Sayed is not worried when it comes to the fate of traditional books, especially the ones in his shop.
“Rare books are unique because they are rare. Besides what you read, the feel of old paper and the scribbles in pencil often found in them give them so much character,” he says. “Even if you don’t read Arabic, come and just feel these books in your hand.”
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