By Olivia Snaije | @OliviaSnaije
‘Books, Events, and Goodwill’In 1984, Ahmad Muna—a Jerusalem-born teacher who was working in the United Nations Relief and Works Agency Shu’fat camp on the outskirts of the city—opened a bookshop on Salah Ad-Dine Street in occupied East Jerusalem. He called it the Educational Bookshop to revive the name that author Edward Said’s father Wadie and his cousin Boulos had once used for their Palestine Educational Company bookshop and stationery store on the same street. In 1984, however, using the word Palestine in trademarks was illegal, Muna’s son Mahmoud says, so his father had to drop it.
Today, Mahmoud Muna, the youngest in a family of seven, handles back-office duties for the three branches of the Educational Bookshop as well as the bookshop’s cultural program. He also writes about books, and in 2022 co-edited with the author and translator Eyad Barghouthy an Arabic edition of Granta. Four of Muna’s brothers work with him, and his father, now 88, arrives at 5:30 a.m. at the original bookshop to take receipt of the daily newspapers.
That original store sells Arabic books and stationery. The other two bookstores—one across the street from the original shop, the other on the grounds of the iconic American Colony Hotel—sell books primarily in English. Their core list numbers 1,600 books, counting both new and backlist titles. “Another few hundred books come and go,” says Mahmoud Muna. The focus, he says, is on history, politics, and identity, although they stock plenty of novels and illustrated books, as well.
“When we started the business,” Muna says, “there were so many books about Palestine published around the world that weren’t available on the Israeli market.”
‘Giving Back to Society’
This year marks what the United Nations has commemorated as the 75th anniversary of the mass displacement of Palestinians, called the Nakba or “Catastrophe.” And recent Israeli-Palestinian clashes were pointed out in a July 7 press briefing from the UN secretary-general’s spokesman, Farhan Haq, who said that “This year’s appeal to meet the needs of more than 2 million people in the occupied Palestinian territory is just 20-percent funded.”
Against such a backdrop, Muna says the need for literature on Palestine in a local bookshop is ever more relevant. He says wryly, “We survived two intifadas, one peace process, and one pandemic. People know we’ve been through difficult times. We have authors who want to give the bookshop the honor of launching their books with us. We hope we’re giving back to society with books, events, and goodwill.”
Muna says that the big turning point for the bookshop was in 1996, when Edward Said’s book Peace and Its Discontents: Essays on the Middle East Process (Penguin Random House/Vintage) was published, predicting that the 1993 Oslo accords would not lead to peace.
“International figures and journalists were arriving,” Muna says, “and we saw the need for literature on Palestine. There was the wave of new Israeli historians being published” such as Avi Shlaim, Benny Morris, and Ilan Pappe. “And there was a gap in the market because Israeli bookshops didn’t carry them. We began to import books in English.”
In 2009, he says, the market was ready to support an additional bookstore, which they opened on Salah Ad-Dine Street with a café upstairs.
“We kept a very strong relationship with readers and writers and situated ourselves in between,” he says. “We’re the bridge between the people who write books and those who read them, and we facilitate the space where this conversation happens.” Academics, journalists, diplomats, and students became part of their core customer base, as well as Palestinians–who make up 50 percent of their customers and come to educate “themselves about their identity“–and Israelis, whom he says make up 10 percent of their customers.
The market is growing, Muna says, in part because “Palestine-Israel is a sexy subject for academics. Post-modernist ex-Orientalist researchers are still obsessed with the Middle East.”
Moreover, Muna says, “In the publishing industry, the word Palestine has moved from the inside of a book to the title of a book. Cookbooks are a great example. The word became legitimate. This legitimacy has changed the way Palestinians write about Palestine. That’s really nice to see.”
‘A Board Meeting With Family Members’
The Palestine Festival of Literature, or PalFest, was founded by the Egyptian-British author Ahdaf Soueif in 2008, and has brought many international authors to the occupied territory. The festival’s operation paused in 2018 before restarting in 2019. In the interim, Muna organized the Kalimat Palestinian Literature Festival with the Council for British Research in the Levant’s Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem. Writers and journalists travelled from Jerusalem to Nablus, Ramallah, Bethlehem, and Haifa. PalFest was back in production this year in May, with authors including Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lina Meruane, and Isabella Hammad. “We don’t want to compete,” Muna says. “We help with consulting and provide the books.”
He’s currently working on the next Granta edition in Arabic, he says, and the bookstore has started to publish a few books, both in English and Arabic, including a graphic novel, a book on theater in Palestine, and one on letters by teenage Palestinian prisoners. “Every other night we have a board meeting with family members,” Muna says.
“We try to remind ourselves regularly that we are not the UN bookshop. We’re a Palestinian-run bookshop operating in occupied East Jerusalem. We have a duty to celebrate Palestinian writers, to empower Palestinians to tell their stories. They don’t have the same opportunities that Israeli writers have here. We focus on Palestinian books, and we don’t have to be apologetic about it.
“There are 600 to 700 bookstores that sell books about the Israeli story,” he says, “so one bookstore in East Jerusalem can afford to just sell books about the Palestinian point of view. We also have some Israeli literature that’s interesting.”
Ahmad Muna says that as a student he loved books and read all the time. “My home is small, and I must have 1,000 books in it.” His favorites authors are Egyptian: Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein, and the poet Mostafa Saadeq Al-Rafe’ie. Mahmoud Muna’s reading suggestions are:
- The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine by Rashid Khalidi (Macmillan)
- Nine Quarters of Jerusalem by Matthew Teller (Profile Books)
- Salt Houses by Hala Alyan (Penguin Random House/Windmill Books)
- Gaza Weddings by Ibrahim Nasrallah, translated by Nancy Roberts (American University in Cairo Press/Hoopoe)
- My Name Is Adam by Elias Khoury, translated by Humphrey Davies (Archipelago Books)