The Guardian of Books

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His patient negligence turns material possessions to antiques. Occasionally handled but not bought; turns shrinking bodies to ash or dust that settles beneath the infinite grains and turns short-lived words to quotes, vividly and enthusiastically chattered by our fragile grandchildren.

In the heart of the hustle and bustle of old Tripoli, in between the small alleys of “Saray al aatika” (the old saray), where the sun seeps trough the roofs’ cracks of the old market, lies Maktabat Al-Sa’eh (“The Pilgrim’s Bookshop”). The Al Sa’eh bookstore is a Tripoli landmark, occupying a five-thousand-square-foot space in a grand, crumbling building that once served as an Ottoman police barracks.

The shop belongs to Father Ibrahim Sarrouj, a Greek Orthodox priest. A longtime resident of Tripoli’s old Serail neighborhood, he has amassed a large collection of book, rare first editions of scholarly texts, novels in different languages, dictionaries, encyclopedias, out-of-print magazines, in the forty-plus years since he opened for business.

Founded in 1972 and moved to its current location in 1980, it is not only the oldest and largest bookstore in Tripoli; it is also the second largest in the whole of Lebanon. Father Sarrouj is widely known to be a humanist and a man who has spent his life promoting and practicing harmony.

Two years ago, On a Friday night shortly after New Year’s, a group of men broke into the bookshop and set it on fire. The fire sparked an outrage that went beyond the small Christian community of Lebanon’s northern capital. Within hours, Muslims and Christians were working together to clean the ashes from the shelves and floors.

In recent years Lebanon’s second largest city has become known for gun battles between the impoverished side-by-side neighborhoods of the predominantly Sunni Muslim Bab al-Tabbaneh and Alawite Jabal Mohsen, yet here in the heart of old Tripoli, its residents are trying to keep it alive with the love of knowledge and their fervor for culture.

We visited the bookshop with our good friends Mirna and Ziad, and I was astounded by the devastating beauty of the burned books that father Sarrouj has kept although unsalvageable. He held on to them, just like he holds on to his shop, because without them his life would be meaningless and his somehow quest for collecting books would seem meaningless without them. He holds on to his books, like some of us hold on to Lebanon, with passion and fear combined with pride and unexplainable adoration.

He gave us a tour of the shop with a sense of enthusiasm and pride that belies the tragic scene of scorched walls and pages, that remind me of my Beirut during its nightmarish days. There were stacks of volumes wrapped in plastic bags to protect them from dust and humidity: collections of classical Arabic poetry, learned epistles, vintage periodicals, children’s books, and doorstoppers with tooled leather bindings. The place looked like it rarely received visitors; it was portrayed as a quaint anachronism, a vestige of Lebanese gentility to be preserved before it vanished like the Ottoman building it occupied.

Trying to hide his broken spirit under his usual smile, father Sarrouj talked to us about Palestine, pan-Arabism, and progressive revolutions in the world. He said he aspired to a new flock of activists who will liberate Palestine and an active youth who will fight for our country’s existence.

“Never mind this fanaticism – I know Tripoli quite well. This is our city, and these are our young men,” he said.

“ana wo hal maktabeh sarlna ma3 ba3id 45 sinne, wa Ana khadimoha il Awwal” (this bookstore and I have been together for 45 years, and I am its first servant) were his last words before we parted and I took this picture of this compelling 74 year old man.

Seeing him going through his books with glasses perched on the tip of his nose, reciting paragraphs of novels, I thought to myself here he stands, he who we call the bookkeeper, for he is the holder of this world’s words.

I looked at him and thought, if it is possible in his entirely mortal capacity
to read as much books as he can, he’ll do so. 

For who else will listen to the hearts and minds
of storytellers, truth seekers and prophets?

 Who else will turn the pages
of unopened, uncharted books?

Who else will live in the worlds
and fulfill the hopes of those who made them?

 Who will seize the magic of words and spin them
into a believable reality?

 Who will? And very suddenly 
as I looked into this old soul with shaking fingers
, soft and wrinkled creases in his face, it’s as if his dream 
transcended and became a reality that was here present among us. Silent but very much present.

To my Lebanon and its beautiful souls…

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