In the Comfort of His Personal Library

"Ahmed Al-Fitouri"

I was the first in my family to get an education, but I had built my first library even before I started going to school. It was composed of photographs, which were the result of both purchases and gifts; I placed a mastic gum wrapper beside a photograph of a famous movie star, Arab or American, from the early sixties. I expanded my collection through gambling, trading, borrowing, and even stealing photographs from the other children. 

Isn’t every letter of the alphabet a photograph in its own right? As soon as I learned to read, at the mosque and at school, I started saving children’s magazines and books. My collection of photographs was initially housed in a cardboard structure–then, the magazines lived on shelves that I built out of the wooden boxes of Lebanese apples that my father sold in his store. 

A book must have a home, just like me. I was adamant on providing them with shelter, so I started binding my books and magazines with colored paper and laminating them. As my father's oldest son, I slept by myself in the living room. I had my own bed, and my bookcase stood in for a bedside table. After I graduated high school, he bought me an expensive Formica table. But he did not buy me a chair! 

During the COVID-19 era, I quarantined in the library. In March 2020, masked at home in my self-imposed exile in Cairo, I opened the door for the carpenter, who was delivering my custom-made bookcase. I had picked out the type of wood, the veneer, and the dimensions. It was brown, with yellow doors at the bottom, 2 meters high and 3 meters wide. Then, in my usual excitement, I organized my books alphabetically. Magazines, where it all began, formed the heart of my library; specialized magazines, cultural magazines, general and scientific ones, and finally, comics. 

In the1960s, during my childhood, the country was overcome with panic over the Cholera disease, and we rushed towards the hospitals and clinics for treatment. At the same moment, a Lebanese customer of my father’s gave me a record of Fairouz’s “Ghanneit Mecca” album. And he had already bought my father a record player. That's when my audio library was established, followed by an audiovisual one, with 8mm films. After I graduated from primary school, my uncle gave me an old cinema projector, with a short Charlie Chapman tape.

During my time in prison, that forced confinement that oppresses the soul, in a cell resembling a can of sardines stuffed with 10 men for almost 10 years, I had no way of receiving books. But ultimately, there is also life in prison, and humans are genetically predisposed to accomplish the impossible. 

One time, we were allowed an exceptional visit for no clear reason. The only two visitors were the mothers of my cellmates and friends Khaled El-Torgoman and the late Idris El-Mesmary. They brought some food and underwear with them, but they weren't permitted to see their sons. The food was wrapped in pages of a foreign newspaper, which we later learned was the latest edition of Time magazineagazine. Magazines were not allowed into the country at the time, but a family member had smuggled the issue in. It seems like he wanted to surprise us. That’s how we revived the magazine’s body; our library now contained the latest issue of Time. We also issued a magazine out of cigarette rolling paper; it featured individual, collective, and translated writing in several fields. 

The prison administration suddenly received orders to taper their violence and pressure, to avoid driving us towards eruption and rebellion. (We had just gone on a hunger strike that lasted for 10 days.) As a result, they bought us books, and funnily enough, we received one titled: “The Tormented of the Earth: The Psychology of the Oppressed Man.” Our friend Ramadan El-Maqsaby made bookshelves out of cigarette packs wrapped in the colorful fabric of a worn-out blazer. Together with another friend, I was a kind of curator for the library. When we were released, Idris El-Mismari and I took some of its contents, particularly the pieces we authored, and some of them remain there to this day. 

In my freedom, there were many libraries, not just one. But that’s a story for another time.

Born in Benghazi, a Libyan journalist, writer, and novelist who writes about politics and culture. He began his career as a journalist at a young age, working for Al-Fajr Al-Jadeed newspaper, its cultural supplement, and La magazine. He served as the editor-in-chief of the magazine Mawaqif (2011-2014). Among his publications are the novels “Sareeb” and “The Biography of Bani Ghazi” as well as the critical study “In the Footsteps of Rafiq.”

Ahmed Al-Fitouri
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