Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Ancient Books for Sale (While They Last)

In a dusty warehouse on a busy corner in central Amman sits the Maaytah family inheritance, the Khazanet Al Gahith Bookshop, consisting of old manuscripts, periodicals, religious tomes, and ancient texts of antiquity. These manuscripts and books, which have been collected for hundreds of years and brought to Amman from Jerusalem by the Ma’aytah brother’s grandfather in 1948, are now the legacy of the seven Ma’aytah brothers. They tend two kiosks and the warehouse, which is stuffed with books and boxes filled with old manuscripts and texts. The books have been in the family for a long time “perhaps for a thousand years,” says Mohammed, one of the elder Ma’aytah brothers.

The early bookstore was set up in the 1850’s near Bab Al Amud in Jersulam, by Abu and Mohammed's grandfather. Some of the papers in the grandfather’s collection had previously been used to wrap food and vegetables, but rescuing history from obscurity and keeping it alive, the grandfather passed the business on to his son after he was martyred in Palestine. The Ma’aytah brother’s father lost one of his legs battling the Jewish settlers in 1948 and his bookshop was burned to the ground. Fearing for his life, and retribution by the settlers, their father packed up the rest of his books and moved to Amman, Jordan. Pleading for help to preserve what was left of his old manuscripts he appealed to King Abdullah I, who granted him a prime spot in Amman where he set up his bookstall.

After the King’s death, the family again had to re-locate until they at last settled where they are now, on Khazanet Al Jahith (Al Jahith), opposite the Central Post Office. The warehouse on Al Jahith, across the street from the kiosk, houses a good set of Arabic manuscripts, lithographs, and the more valuable collections. Another book kiosk is outside the Roman Amphitheater.

Who is interested in these ancient manuscripts? Arab and foreign researchers, collectors, and diplomats in Amman and elsewhere all come to the Ma’aytab brothers to peruse or buy books. On any night of the week it is busy. The brothers also sell ancient coins and money from many other countries, all of it original.

The Ma’aytah family are avid readers themselves. Mohammed and Abu’s father only achieved Grade 6 in school, yet he learned English and Turkish and some old Aramaic, a Semitic language with a 3,000-year history. Abu is self-taught in zoology, Bedouin herbal medicine, and biology, and has dedicated his time to studying the methods of herbal traditions, researching manuscripts detailing the science of herbal medicines. He has set up a lab where he is currently applying the teachings of Daoud Al Antaki, an Asian scholar who wrote an authoritative tome on herbal medicine and extraction techniques. Mohammed smiles when he tells me that the “antiquarian manuscript pages were originally used as food wrappers in Palestine, but they were rescued by my ancestors.” I wasn't sure how much longer they'd last being smudged with his nicotine-stained fingers in the dungeon where they were now being stored, but he had an impressive sense of destiny.

The kiosk is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. New books are also available, but ask them to show you their collection from antiquity and they’re more than happy to lead you across the street to their warehouse and show you their ancient treasures.


Koran - 1800’s