x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In the age of the Kindle, don’t write off books just yet

Digital books may have advantages, but nothing can replace the charm of the printed book.

In 953AD, after the Sultan of Egypt demanded a pen that would not stain his clothes, the world’s first fountain pen was invented. Today, however, fewer and fewer people are using fountain pens, or any kind of pen or pencil for that matter.

It is a fact of life that, over time, inventions evolve and either get improved upon or become obsolete. I keep reading articles published on the internet of course, about how books have started fading away into the virtual world of e-books and eventually paper books will become a thing of the past.

It is true that e-books will save a lot of trees, but judging from the crowds at the Sharjah International Book Fair, people still love the feel of the printed page.

I saw children hugging big colourful books like they were teddy bears, and sometimes I saw adults doing the same when they found a book they have been seeking for a while or one they remembered from childhood. I could also see that the quality of Arabic books had recently got better after decades of neglect.

As a horror-Jinn genre writer myself, I took particular interest in the Arabic books in this area. I noticed a flood of titles by Arab writers, with interesting horror books on everything from zombies to psycho-killers to philosophical ones on what happens after death.

There are “Rewayat” novels by Arab writers on every possible topic out there, and some quite scandalous ones that would previously never have been published in Arabic. For a long time it was considered acceptable to be risqué in English but not in Arabic, with one of the often repeated reasons being that Arabic is the sacred language of the Quran.

It is ironic that if one looks at the older classical poets and their prose and poems, they were often more daring and open than today’s Arab poets. Al Hasan ibn Hani, known as Abu Nuwas, for instance, wrote more than 400 poems about wine. In general, the terms and description used by Arab and Persian poets of the past would even make a sailor blush.

I always look for the rare books and maps that are sold at these book fairs. I like to explore the maps to see how our view of the world has changed over time.

I stumbled upon some really interesting books from the 15th to 19th century related to the Arab world at this year’s book fair.

The first printed record of Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Doha can be found in the 1590 edition of a travelogue by the Venetian state jeweller and merchant, Gasparo Balbi, which also has interesting historic facts of exchange rates and travel routes. It costs €75,000 (Dh370,320). My personal favourite was the Kitab Alf layla wa-layla, the first complete edition of One Thousand and One Nights in Arabic, published in 1835 – there are only four of these in the world. No wonder it costs €600,000.

What I found interesting was the first few lines of the book. It began with a few religious thoughts thanking Allah and sending prayers and peace upon Prophet Mohammed.

Then it went into the importance of learning from past stories and the story of the Persian king who, after being betrayed by his wife, would marry a new bride every day and have her killed the following morning to avoid being humiliated ever again by his wife’s infidelity. Of course, when he marries Shahrazade she keeps postponing her own death by telling him an enchanting story each evening. This went on for 1,001 nights.

Then you have the 1543 translation of the Quran into Latin, priced at €45,000, where the chapters of the Quran have drawings of figures and items similar to those found in biblical books.

All of these are important relics that tell us an incredible amount about society in the past and how we interpreted our world. Also, the fact that they are so expensive tells us why we still value them, despite the proliferation of cheaper, newer versions.

Imagine how many hands have held the rare old books, and how each time someone holds a book, they leave their mark on it.

Sometimes, the books don’t have to be that old, but marks or notes made inside with a pencil or pen by a previous reader, make them all that more precious.

rghazal@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @Arabianmau