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Father Sarrouj's bookshop and the Death of Ideas in Tripoli

I was a regular customer at Father Ibrahim Sarrouj’s bookshop in Tripoli, Lebanon. As an avid young reader of modest means, I was familiar with almost every permanent and itinerant seller of used books in Tripoli and Beirut. Not only were their books cheaper than new books, they were also much more interesting, titles that the regular shops didn’t have. Every book was a find, and I could remember where and from whom I bought each book. So while you might be able to get C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia at Jarrous’s bookshop in the prosperous part of town, at Father Sarrouj’s shop, in a small alley near the Mansouri Mosque, I found and later read at one sitting Lewis’s Screwtape Letters. On that day, seeing my interest in Lewis, Father Sarrouj also recommended Lewis’s Mere Christianity. This was twenty years ago. I haven’t seen either of these books anywhere else in Lebanon since.

Father Sarrouj would say that “he knew what he had,” and he drove a hard bargain. His shop is where I broke my bargaining teeth. Coming to the front to pay, I would rehearse in my head what I thought each book was worth, and which books I would let go of if the price was too high. Sometimes, the bargaining would be delayed and made more tense when it was Father Sarrouj senior at the front (both of them were Orthodox priests), and I had to wait for the son to return, sometimes on another day, because “only he knew the prices.” Once, at another bookshop nearby having a late-night book sale on the eve of the new school year — a Tripoli tradition — an employee, also a young student, was impressed by my pile of books, and we got around to talking about my places to buy books. When I mentioned Father Sarrouj, he shook his head and said that “a turd of his was worth a camel.”

General view of the eastern districts in Tripoli, also showing the Mansouri Great Mosque, the Tripoli Citadel, and many other Mameluke and Ottoman sites. (July 2006) photo credit: Dr. Ghazi Omar Tadmouri

The bookshop was an Ali Baba cave of books, with a high pole-vaulted ceiling, grey and full of cobwebs, and several sections and side rooms. One of these contained books in English. I would spend several hours browsing, making use of a rickety wooden ladder to get to the upper shelves. There was, thankfully, a toilet. Because it was near the “Big Mosque” (the Mansouri), I would often go to the shop on Fridays, either before or after prayers. I would hear the sound of pre-prayer readings coming in through the small windows high in the wall, and I would measure my time by them, hurrying to browse a few more titles as the time came near. It was a sort of parallel universe: owned by a Christian, and full of books in an unlettered neighbourhood. But in my mind I worked to reconcile the two, always hoping that my reading would serve some sort of edification, and ultimately some social good that would encompass both worlds.

The booksellers I frequented, Father Sarrouj included, were part of still another universe: a fallen universe, economically and socially marginal. Father Sarrouj’s customers were few and far between. At one point he covered the books in plastic to protect them from dust and mildew (it was a damp shop). It seemed that he only ordered new books by request, or to serve the causes that he believed in: Christianity, Marxism, Arab Nationalism. Two of the sellers who displayed their books on the wall of the Tripoli public gardens I met when the three of us shared the bare carpet of the Tell mosque for the night.

The Salafists, who last week set fire to Father Sarrouj’s bookshop, also inhabit the fallen universe. But, perhaps tired of being fallen, they find exhilarating the claim that they can and should turn the tables, and rule the universe. In a traditional Muslim society like Tripoli, this fact might not seem obvious, since it is easily mistaken for deep religiosity, whose ordinary forms, such as prayer, are shared. Salafism can even come across as a school of jurisprudence, promoting particular “correct” forms of worship. But turning the tables is a declaration of war, and at the core of Salafist ethics is the belief that normal rules don’t apply: the destruction of property and lives, not usually halal, are now made halal for them.

Tripoli is living up to its Greek name: it is, more than ever, three cities. But the Salafists did not spring out of nowhere, suddenly brainwashed by foreign ideas. Within living memory, the universes have been separate. It has only gotten worse. In homage to Father Sarrouj (who, thankfully, was not physically hurt), I would like to give a bookish answer to the problem. On several occasions, Father Sarrouj complained to me that no one reads. Yes, that is a classic bookseller complaint. But I think that Father Sarrouj was aware of the public dimension of reading: of the exchange of ideas on public issues.

The problem with the bourgeois universe is that it is afraid of public issues. It can’t believe that it has made it out of poverty, and now wants to put as much of a distance between it and poverty as it can. One thing that it tells itself is that it is now better, it is more educated, no longer backward. Ironically, education, the source of social progress, is antithetical to a public spirit. The only purpose is to get ahead, and stay ahead, and books (arranged on bookcases in tasteful homes), only serve as a badge of prosperity and enlightenment.

Salafism thrives in Tripoli because bourgeois Islam is private: it has no public spirit, no way of inviting you to be a citizen discussing public issues with other citizens. This is because bourgeois Islam accepts the division of the universe into enlightened and fallen realms—“model Muslim” maps almost perfectly onto “solid bourgeois citizen.” What is there to discuss? Outside the respectable realm lies a dark area of taboo. The Salafists exist, but we know very little about them.

When public officials in Tripoli, responding to the burning, say that “This is not Islam” or “This is not Tripoli,” they are using a language of shame, which, by emphasizing the superiority of one realm over the other, traces all problems to this difference. They are saying, if the Salafists were not so backward and barbaric, none of this would have happened. But is the language of shame ever enough to solve anything? What can the enlightened say to the unenlightened except: shame on you, for not being like us? By continually returning to this difference, other Muslims are absolving themselves of responsibility by declaring that nothing can be done; because you can’t teach, reform, or reason with a barbarian. (Barbarians are, by definition, beyond these things.)

What is it that can be done? Instead of blaming Salafism on foreign or corrupt ideas — and looking down on people who follow them as gullible, too backward to know better — we ought to recognize the source of their appeal: that they are empowering. I’m not asking that we tolerate the Salafists because they’ve had a rough deal. But instead of proposing to cure their minds, as if this was a matter of mere ideology, we ought to reconsider the social distinctions — and the political conditions — that seem to rule out their ability to participate as citizens.

What does it mean to be a citizen in Tripoli? Doesn’t it mean to race to make as much money as you can, so that people will respect you? Isn’t it every man for himself? Aren’t women ornaments of the home, and they and the home, like the books, badges? Isn’t religion also a way of earning respect?

No one’s idea of citizenship in Tripoli appeals to me. I can’t accept that personal advancement is the same thing as being a “good son of Tripoli” (it is only sons that earn this title). By this logic, the very best sons are those who have found a way out, who have made it to Beirut or abroad. Is there nothing that makes it worthwhile to stay?

The first time I met Father Sarrouj, he asked me: “Min ayyi dar-il-qawm?” I found this elaborate expression intriguing. (It translates into something like: “of what people’s abode are you”?) It showed a pleasure in the Arabic language, which is ultimately a pleasure in inhabiting the world that the language encodes. Books, especially books that ask us to pay attention to the way language is used, preserve and renew the way we imagine our world and our lives together. They’re a source of harmony and continuity.

For a moment, I could imagine Father Sarrouj’s question as a confirmation of ancient codes of hospitality and the dignity of the stranger: I smiled at the compliment, as well as the humor of it, coming from an older man and a priest talking to a young man in his early twenties. But there was another meaning to his question, one that I find particularly sad today: “you must not be from around here.”

This is an expanded version of a  post written by Mazen El Makkouk that originally appeared in his blog MUNĀSABĀT: A blog about reading the Qur’an and everything else.”  

Mazen El Makkouk is a PhD student in Literature at the University of Notre Dame. His dissertation is about the way concepts of literariness can inform readings of the Qur’an.

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