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Civilizations in the sand

Rare and collectible books on the Middle East

By Nadeem M. El Issa
Source: O.P. WORLD, June 1998

Dealing in out-of-print books on the Middle East is as exciting as dealing in any other type of book; it has its peculiarities which are not insurmountable, and we all start with a certain degree of the love of the book.  My tale is not different.

I was born in 1945 in Jalfa (hence Joppa Books Ltd.) in a country that was then known as Palestine. Our house was always full of books, mainly in Arabic and English spread over a wide spectrum of subjects. My earliest recollections are of being tucked in bed during the severe winter nights of Amman (Jordan) while my father read to us in English, Robert Louis Stevenson’s great story Treasure Island. Of course my father had to translate the book into Arabic, sentence by sentence, until the story became so exciting, we were unable to wait for the translation to come through. We demanded that he should continue reading, satisfied with whatever we were able to understand. In fact, I still have the same copy of Treasure Island and read it again a few weeks ago. Without proper supervision, I remember reading books that I half understood, or did not understand at all, and wish now I had the time to read them again.

My serious collecting of books on the Middle East started in the early l960’s when I was studying at the American University of Beirut in Lebanon. The dominant political subject in the whole of the Middle East then was the Arab-Israeli conflict. The relative political freedom in Lebanon afforded me the opportunity to buy books not allowed in Jordan, Syria or Egypt. I got my MA degree in 1970, worked for the Institute for Palestine Studies in Beirut as book distribution manager, and then had the opportunity to work in Abu Dhabi (United Arab Emirates) in the Persian Gulf. I took my book collection with me, and my wife and I stayed for about twelve years. During our vacations to the USA, Europe, and the Far East, I always endured the same problems of censorship when I brought them back to Abu Dhabi. Censorship in the Arab world is a fact of life, and it is as strong now as it has always been. Censorship of books is the main reason I set up business in the UK and not in my Arab country. It is sad that Arab governments still feel the need to vet the contents of books before allowing the public to read them.

Three years ago, during a visit to a Persian Gulf Shiekhdom boasting a Free Zone area, I toyed with the idea of setting up a book dealing business there. I was under the impression that a Free Zone meant just that, and checked into this with the local branch of the Ministry of Information. After explaining my purpose to an official, I was fixed with a suspicious stare and advised that censorship in laws applied to the Free Zone as much as to the country as a whole. And for good measure, he warned me that although I live in the UK, he was aware of censorship laws there more severe than those applicable in the Persian Gulf Sheikhdom. I guess he is in a more privileged position to know better. Needless to say, my plans for setting up business there were aborted.

At the age of 42, I left the comfortable lifestyle of Abu Dhabi and went to the UK. I felt I wanted to proceed in life (pending being called to the Great Bookshop in the Sky) doing what I liked most: dealing in out-of- print, academic books on the Middle East. I never regretted my decision and hope I never will. I became acquainted with several book dealers from whom I bought books while in Abu Dhabi. They became my friends and gave me invaluable assistance in setting up my trade. I also indulged my passion for studying and read history and politics while earning another MA degree in Near and Middle East Studies from the University of London in 1990.

In the last ten years my business has expanded to such an extent that I had to purchase a shop with a large storage area. So for now, my plans for further study must wait until my present expansion phase has been completed. My business is still mainly by mail order and I sell my books to collectors and libraries all over the world.

Shopping At The Suq

Let me take you on a tour of the book markets of the Middle East. In almost every Arab capital these days there is an annual book fair. Except for Cairo, these book fairs are usually for new books. In Cairo there is a side fair for secondhand and out-of- print books which takes place at the same time as the main Cairo International Book Fair. There are secondhand book dealers in Beirut, Aleppo, Baghdad, Damascus, Amman and Cairo. Most of them trade locally, except a few in Cairo who are known internationally. I have met most of them and unfortunately all those I have met suffer from what I call the Suq (local bazaar) syndrome. The unknowledgeable among them think that every book which is a few years old must be worth a fortune. Even those who know the value of their books price them exorbitantly.

When you make your selection, then starts the equally pleasurable task of establishing how much you have to pay. A couple of hours and several cups of tea later, during which you have to continually emphasize to the bookseller that you buy in bulk and sell books individually, you conclude your deal by throwing into the bargain a string of worry beads (a prayer rosary) which you bought earlier in the Suq for fifty pence, and the bookseller has been eyeing with envy. Invariably this concludes your negotiations. You feel you’ve gotten a bargain, and the bookseller believes he has made a massive profit.

Collectors & Buyers

Nowhere in the Arab world do they have second hand book fairs similar to those we have in the UK on a weekly basis in small villages or local towns up and down the country. Very few people in the Arab world appreciate old books. But we must not assume that there are no great book lovers and collectors in the Middle East. Inveterate Middle Eastern book collectors apart, a person in the Middle East finds it very difficult to understand why an old book should be so expensive. Explanations of rarity, associational remarks, special binding, etc. are accepted politely, but you can tell, with no conviction. However, there is some improvement. In fact, the Middle East is now waking up to the importance of book collecting, and my assumption is that very soon most Arab houses will have a couple of shelves of old books.

Universities in the Middle East are mushrooming. Regrettably, their budgets for books are erratic and meager. Their purchasing procedures are often bogged down in administrative red-tape with the consequent delays in payment. Unless a dealer is able to bear such delays in payment, he or she is well advised to be wary. This applies also to the very affluent countries like Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Gulf States. Universities concentrate on purchasing newly published books and ignore basic texts in the various disciplines which constitute the backbone of student research. Obviously this applies more to the social sciences than applied sciences. Turkey is the only country in the Middle East with whom I dealt, whose universities are aware of the importance of out-of-print books and are consciously buying such books to build up their new libraries.

A Turbulant Political History

We are all in the business of selling books to people who are looking for them and want them. Each one of us has chosen a certain subject area in which we have gained an intimate knowledge. My involvement with out- of-print books on the Middle East follows the same lines. Being from the Middle East myself, my mental involvement is the product of a turbulent and important political period which saw the creation of the existing states in the Middle East.

Bernard Lewis in his book “The Shaping of the Modern Middle East” tells us that the core countries of the Middle East are present day Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt, the states of the Arabian Peninsula, Sudan, Iran and Turkey. He also adds that we may include or exclude Central Asia, the Balkan countries, Greece, Pakistan, Somalia, Ethiopia and North Africa.

Books on this area encompass books by early travelers; the beginnings of studying the dominant religion in the Middle East which is Islam; and the history of the area from ancient to modern times, its archaeology, its political structure under Ottoman rule, the study of current trends in social and economic spheres, the Arab-Israeli conflict, etc. Books on these subjects are to be found in Arabic, English, French and German, and bibliographies on almost every subject have been compiled.

Collectible Books

Arab, Persian and Turkish scholars have produced great historical works, each in their respective language and covering specific historical periods. Arab and Persian philosophers produced commentaries on Greek philosophical works. Middle Eastern literature is an endless area of study with an unending list of books in all languages. Edited works of old Arabic and Persian manuscripts have been produced in the capitals of the West as well as in Arab countries. Knowledge of all these books, their authors, editors and compilers, and the period they cover is important to any dealer in Middle East books. Western scholars have also written extensively about every subject related to the Middle East.

Any dealer in books on the Middle East worth his salt should be able to judge the importance of these books. It is impossible to list the hundreds or thousands of important books on the Middle East which fetch prices more than $150. There are also the more obscure titles which command equal value and importance. One such book which comes readily to mind is Gollancz’s translation from the Latin entitled The Settlement of the Order of Carmalites in Mesopotamia (Bassora) published by Oxford University Press in 1927.This is a wonderfully detailed book about the social, political and trading life of Basra (Iraq) between 1623 and 1733. These books are no longer readily available and have no chance to be reprinted.

We also have the books of the great travelers: Burckhardt, Palgrave, Blunt, Burton, Bell, Wellsted and many others. Some have been reprinted and are bought by students for research purposes, while the original editions are bought by dedicated and wealthy collectors.

Books on the social history of the Middle East are a new area of interest, and of particular interest to me as far as Palestine and Greater Syria are concerned. Books like Robert Richardson’s Travels Along the Mediterranean in two volumes published in 1822; Vere Monro’s A Summer Ramble in Syria in two volumes published in 1835; James Finn’s Stirring Times edited in two volumes by his wife and published in 1878; John Shotton Madox’s Excursions in the Holy Land, Egypt, Nubia, Syria, Etc. in two volumes published in 1834; Edward Napier’s Reminiscences of Syria also in two volumes published in 1843; R. R. Madden’s Travels in Turkey, Egypt, Nubia and Palestine in two volumes and published in 1829; and J. L. Porter’s Five Years in Damascus in two volumes published in 1855. All these books are collectors’ items in their own right.

The Right Price

Standard bibliographical works will allow a dealer to identify most of the important books on the Near and Middle East written in the English, French or German languages. These reference works tend to concentrate on the earlier printed works covering mainly travel books.

Book Auction Records and now Internet book markets such as Advanced Book Exchange, Interloc and Bibliofind provide a lot of information on the prices of books. My business, however, is in academic and out-of-print books on the Middle East and these are either not expensive enough nor famous enough to attract listings in bibliographies, or else they have disappeared altogether from dealers’ catalogues.

Establishing the price of such books becomes a personal judgment based on information contained in a massive database I built over the last twenty years. This information helps me track the identity of the book, who sold it, when it was sold, and the price at which it was sold.

When it comes to Arabic printed books up to 1926, the basic bibliographical reference work is by Ilyan Sarkis. His bibliography was carried forward by Aida Nuseir of the American University in Cairo up to the year 1956. I am sure she has a follow-up to that book too. This reference work tells us when the book was first published, any reprints made and who edited them, and whether any foreign edition has been published in Berlin, Paris, London, Leiden or Vienna.

The Sarkis bibliographical work enabled me to establish the authenticity of the first Arabic printed edition of the famous book The Thousand and One Nights. It was edited in Arabic by Scotsman W. H. McNaughton and was published in Calcutta between the years 1839 and 1842 in four volumes. It was published by subscription and it is interesting to note that Mohamad Ali Pasha ,the famous founder of modern Egypt, subscribed to one copy. The copy in my possession has marginal notations of a translation effort. I dream that perhaps it is the same copy used by Richard Burton for his famous translation of this book into English. Or did this copy belong to a British army officer in India trying to better his pay by learning Arabic?

This brings me to what every dealer in second hand and out-of-print books knows: the importance of researching an obscure book and its markings with a view to establishing its ownership, importance etc. The same applies to Arabic books on the Middle East.

One of my important finds was a book written by Taha Hussein in 1926 in Arabic Di al-Shi’r al-Jahili. The book contained perhaps a single sentence or two, indirectly throwing doubt on the authenticity of the Qur’an, the Moslem holy book. The book created an uproar when it was first published in Cairo. Following Street riots there, all the copies were burnt, but not before a few were presented, by the author, to some of his friends and colleagues. I came upon this book in Cairo and after carefully checking its authenticity, I discovered that the British Library has the only reprint edition under a different title published in 1927. Confirmation of this fact came from the world authority on Taha Hussein, Prof. Pierre Cachia at Columbia University. I sold this book to a major antiquarian book dealer in London for a very large amount. Eight years later I obtained another copy from the USA, signed by the author as a presentation to an important Egyptian official with a similar name to the celebrated founder of the Egyptian dynasty in the early 19”' century, Muhammad Ali Pasha.

The Importance of Islam

A dealer in Middle East books must be aware of the sensitivity of the area to the subject of Islam. It is only at the beginning of the 18th century that western scholars began to view and study the religion of Islam with a sympathetic attitude and at the same time rigorous scholarly discipline. Many books were written, mostly defamatory to the Islamic religion and some even reproducing artists’ impressions of the Prophet Muhammad. Moslems are greatly offended by such books, and a dealer must be careful to identify such books and delicately explain to a prospective buyer that such a book might not be very sympathetic to his or her religion. Most Moslems will understand this provided it is explained to them. Censorship departments in Arab countries will probably never allow such books to enter their borders. Many Arab universities, which might buy these books, will hold them in restricted areas.

As mentioned earlier, I sell my books worldwide. Sales are divided roughly 30 percent within the UK and 65 percent to the rest of the world. Books sold to the Middle East form a small percentage of my total turn-over. However this trend is gradually changing. Although I handle and sell high value books, this type of book does not constitute a major percentage of my turnover. I always prefer to sell a larger volume of books to a much wider circle of customers than to depend on a small number of collectors. Admittedly, this strategy involves an enormous amount of effort, but at least my business does not become dependent on a small number of collectors, the loss of which would drastically affect my business.

Always Something to Learn

So finally, what kinds of traits must a good book dealer in Middle East out-of-print academic books possess? A detailed knowledge of the area; its geography, politics, ancient and modern history, and religions. Knowledge of at least one Middle Eastern language: Arabic, Turkish, Persian or Greek. Knowledge of at least one European language: English (important for all books on the Middle East), French (important for books on North Africa), German (important for Islamic studies), Italian or Spanish. Detailed knowledge of at least 5000 key titles of basic texts, collectors’ items, and reference works. General knowledge of a much larger number of books, and the ability to judge their importance based on the author, the sources he used, and his general rating in the community of Middle East scholars—including those who are alive or who have passed away. The ability to judge the value of books bought in lots, especially in auctions. A firm grasp of the various historians of the area and the ability to identify each historian’s period, when his original work was written, and when was his work edited, by whom, and when. Intimate knowledge of Middle Eastern academic circles: Who teaches what courses in which universities, a knowledge of their reading lists, what geographical area of the Middle East they concentrate upon, and what subjects they emphasize. Familiarity with Middle Eastern journals at least in Arabic and English. And finally, the flexibility to occasionally attend Middle Eastern conferences and meet the scholars.


Nadeem M. El Issa started actively trading in Near and Middle East books about 10 years ago. Although most of his trade is via mail-order, he maintains a large stock of approx. 10,000 titles.

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