Idris Mears: The British man who converted to Islam and opened a bookshop in the UAE
We speak to the ‘Muslim world’ bookshop owner about his education at Oxford, his conversion to Islam and moving to Dubai
Idris Mears is telling me about the Kingdom of Hormuz, which flourished on the Arabian Gulf in the Middle Ages. “The German archaeologists excavating the site now estimate 80,000 people lived there,” he says. “In 1450, that would have made it bigger than London or Paris.” Mears pauses, his bright blue eyes alive with excitement, and then picks up a different thread, this time explaining why the 15th-century cartographer Ahmad ibn Majid “was probably the most famous person to have lived on this coast”.
We are supposed to be talking about Book Quarter, Mears’s “Muslim world” bookshop located at the Alserkal Cultural Foundation in Dubai’s Al Fahidi Historical District, but the conversation is meandering in all sorts of directions. I should probably try to wrestle things back on track, but, in truth, I don’t want to.
Mears is one of those people you hesitate to interrupt; each sentence that comes out of his mouth seems to be more interesting than the last. This is partly due to a life spent in books. Mears studied English literature at Oxford University, later completed a master’s in history at the University of East Anglia, and worked for many years in publishing, before opening his bookshop in 2016. He is a deep well of information.
But it’s his own story that’s most extraordinary. Born in 1951 on the east coast of England, Mears moved to Bahrain with his parents in 1954. His father worked for a large oil company and the family lived on a camp for foreign employees. “It was fenced off, military-style,” he says. “What I picked up was how badly the European and American expatriates treated the local population. They had this very low opinion of them that was based on nothing and they themselves were not very high quality. I thought, ‘Why are they so smug and proud of themselves? They have no right to be.’ My expatriate experience made me question my own society.”
I thought, ‘If I stay here, I’ll end up being like the dons [professors]. The university is a factory and they are the product of the factory’
Idris Mears, project leader of Book Quarter
In 1959, Mears was sent to boarding school in Shropshire, England. He doesn’t recall the experience fondly. “It was very cold and we were made to go out and maintain the grounds,” he says. Mears, who was at one time laid low by pleurisy, an inflammation of the lungs, found refuge in books. “I used to escape. The place I hid was the library. There was one room of the library where they put all the old books, but I thought these were really interesting,” he says. Mears was nine years old when he read what he describes as a “wonderful” series on Scottish history.
Despite this love of literature and an excellent record at school, Mears struggled to focus on his studies at Oxford, his mind increasingly preoccupied by the theatre. After what he describes as “a bit of prompting from my tutors”, he dropped out, much to his parents’ disappointment. “I was questioning the nature of the knowledge I was getting,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I stay here, I’ll end up being like the dons [professors]. The university is a factory and they are the product of the factory’.” It was, Mears explains, as if the professors had all the information but none of the wisdom.
In 1972, he moved to London, where he joined an experimental theatre company. It was during this time that the defining moment of his life took place. After a chance encounter with a Scotsman called Ian Dallas, who had been an actor, Mears converted to Islam. Dallas, or Abdalqadir As-Sufi, had been Muslim for about five years when he met Mears. Dallas was a central part of a small group of British Muslims living in London and the author of a seminal novel called The Book of Strangers, about a man who leaves the city to pursue a more spiritual path.
Mears, who was a teenager in the 1960s, a time when people questioned the structure of society, says he was “looking for answers, looking to change myself”. It was the perfect moment to meet Dallas. “He asked me, ‘Who’s looking at you when you’re on the stage?’ I suddenly saw myself in my imagination on the stage: I was looking out into the blackness and thought, ‘Who are those eyes?’ I got a shock and realised it was my mother and father. What I was doing was trying to attract the attention of my parents.”
Dallas also pointed out that the culture of drinking that accompanied a life in the theatre was “not very interesting”. Mears felt that Dallas understood him, and so began an “exotic adventure”.
I laid my first literary footprint in Abu Dhabi all those years ago and now there is a place where we can share culture, history and tradition
Mears soon moved into a commune with other British Muslims in London and began doing bits and pieces for Diwan Press, the first Islamic publishing house in Britain, eventually becoming director of the company. “I was 21, I was up for anything,” he explains. “I was going off and meeting all these interesting people in parts of Morocco you’d never normally go to.”
Later, Mears helped found the National Muslim Education Council and was a director of the Association of Muslim Schools. He also became a board member of the Bridge Schools Inspectorate, a government-accredited organisation that assesses independent faith schools in Britain. Since 2016, Mears, 68, has lived in Dubai. But he already had a long association with the UAE before he moved here. He first visited Abu Dhabi in 1979 when he came to meet Al Sheikh Ahmed Abdul Aziz Hamad Al Mubarak, chairman of the Sharia Judicial Department in the emirate, to ask for permission to translate a key text of Islamic jurisprudence. In the 1980s, Mears also taught English to a 14-year-old Ahmad bin Eisa bin Nasser Alserkal, who much later in life and in a nice moment of circularity, founded the Alserkal Cultural Foundation, which is now home to Book Quarter.
Mears returned to the UAE in 1998, establishing the Jumeirah Islamic Learning Centre in Dubai, a cultural association designed to introduce visitors to the UAE to Islam. This was the same year that Mears first participated in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair, selling Islamic texts in English. As he told The National when Book Quarter opened: “I laid my first literary footprint in Abu Dhabi all those years ago and now there is a place where we can share culture, history and tradition.”
Book Quarter is a beautiful place to browse; it’s compact and dense with shelves but full of sunlight – as well as literary surprises for anyone interested in the Islamic world. There are about 3,000 titles, sourced from India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Britain and the US – everything from biographies of the Prophet Mohammed to exceptionally rare, out-of-print editions. “It starts with general culture and that leads to the heart of it, the books on religion,” says Mears. “But I’m very careful to make sure I’m inclusive in terms of the books on Islam. This bookshop is for information, not propagation.
“The enjoyable part is finding the books, but one of the things you have to do as a book merchant is be willing to sell the books that you find, which is not always easy. I’ve learnt the discipline of not buying unless you can sell it.”
Book Quarter has been immensely popular since it opened, which Mears says has much to do with a desire for people to reconnect with their spiritual side, as it does with the increased footfall being drawn to this part of Dubai by the Alserkal Cultural Foundation. “Largely, what I think people are responding to is a reawakened appreciation of spiritual development,” he says. “Islam is not a set of rules, it’s for purifying the heart and for the love of God.
“There’s a hunger for that in response to the political Islam that has really soured people’s understanding of the faith. It has made people say, ‘No, I remember the old men in the mosque.’ For their own sake, they want to connect to something they had tasted previously.”
There is no better time to do this than Ramadan. “There are incredible benefits, health-wise and social-wise, to Ramadan,” says Mears. “But at its core, people do it because they want to please God and they want to show their love by giving something up. It’s a very basic human thing.”
Open 10am to 7pm, Book Quarter, Al Fahidi Historical District, Dubai, www.alserkalculturalfoundation.ae
Updated: May 16, 2019 11:40 AM