At first, I was not disappointed. I was not new to the region after all, and I already knew that bringing books into Syria could be problematic.
When on the move, what's a book-lover to do?
When I decided to leave the UAE and repatriate to Damascus, I expected to spend hours, if not days, disentangling myself from red tape. Indeed, now that I am settled, I find myself perpetually on the wrong side of the law, my home a warehouse for contraband. What is my crime, you ask? My books. Yes, books. Not the lewd, offensive types that call out to be confiscated in a conservative society, nor the politically sensitive stuff that raises red flags at check points. No sir. Mine are just plain vanilla novels and best-sellers straight off the shipping container from Amazon.
Yet when the movers I hired in Abu Dhabi arrived at my home to pack my belongings, one of them said almost immediately upon entering my living room: "Oh, you have books! We can't ship those." At first, I was not disappointed. I was not new to the region after all, and I already knew that bringing books into Syria could be problematic. I learnt this lesson firsthand at the Syrian border with Lebanon, after spending a weekend book shopping in Beirut, where I can find books that are unavailable here.
The Syrian customs officer found my stash during a routine search, and his face lit up like a chandelier. "Aha!" he said, preparing himself for a pat on the shoulder for having caught a smuggler. "Books! Do you have an import license for these?" He piled them one on top of the other and searched my other bags for more, which he managed to find. Of course, I did not have an import license for my books. I am neither a bookshop nor a library nor a publisher, but merely a consumer of books. The dozen or so I had with me were for my private use only.
Any book-shopper in Syria, where the website to Amazon is blocked, will tell you that it is easy to find Islamic and religious books as well as Arabic translations of classics, such as Plato's Republic, but not much else. At the last annual book festival I could also find translations of the latest fad diet books and astrology. Literature and novels by Arab authors are available too, unless of course they offend someone. So people who love to read often shop for books in Beirut and try to take them back to Syria. My crime is a common misdemeanour.
"Come with me," the customs officer said as he marched off with my stash. "You'll need to wait here until we bring the English-speaking officer on duty to inspect your English books," he added, then left me by myself inside an empty office at the border. But this time I had it all figured out. I had called the powers-that-be in Damascus way ahead of my move, and told them I would like to ship my furniture from Abu Dhabi along with my small, private collection of books. I got the green light and all was settled.
So I told this to the shipper. "Oh no. It's not Syria we're worried about," he said. "It's Saudi Arabia." Oh great. What now? I thought. What other hurdles do I have to clear in order to hold on to my Idiot's Guide to Feng Shui and my travel guide to Istanbul? On a recent visit to the United States, I almost purchased the Kindle, an e-reader that would save me the hassle of transporting hard copies of books. But not even that would save my set of rare Arabic dictionaries, or my favourite Arabic translation of Gilgamish.
Because I was shipping my belongings from the UAE by land, the shipment must pass through Saudi Arabia, I was told. There, apparently, all lorries are X-rayed. When I moved from New York to the region four years ago, I was ecstatic. I love covering the Arab world as a journalist, and I relish every discovery I make about my cultural roots. But that day, standing in my apartment in Abu Dhabi, I stared at my half-packed furniture and unpacked shelves of books, not knowing what I was going to do as my deadline for vacating the premises drew near.
I thought about all the people who live elsewhere, where moving from town to town does not entail worrying about their private collection of books. I was jealous. After much ado, the three Syrian customs officers who had gathered to inspect my stash could not reach a conclusion. There was nothing egregious about The Places in Between by Rori Stewart or any of my other titles. So they returned all of my books and sent me on my way.
As for my book collection in Abu Dhabi, I have arranged for it to be shipped through. But I will not say how. Rasha Elass, formerly a reporter for The National, now lives in Damascus