It’s startling and gratifying to see today’s New York Times story on Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, an emporium I found to be a rich resource for work at Edwardes College in Peshawar and a welcome haven during my post-attack internal exile in Islamabad last year.
Until reading the article I did not know that it is one of the largest bookstores in the world, although being there reminded me of the Strand on lower Broadway in Manhattan, the Harvard Coop in the old days, and Blackwell’s in Oxford. And 5 million books in warehouses! In the Pakistan of today, where genuine inquiry is threatened and open-mindedness has definite limits, it is remarkable to walk into an establishment with floors and floors of books of all types, clearly catering both to inquiry and broadening minds.
I did know, of course, that Saeed Book Bank was originally located in Peshawar, for it was during my time there that the proprietors found Peshawar too dangerous and moved to Islamabad, a shift lamented by readers and academics in the city it left behind. As the Times story puts it, “Later the rise of terrorism and fundamentalist Islam made Peshawar, capital of the wild frontier lands of Pakistan, a dangerous place for a bookseller – especially one who insisted on carrying magazines like Cosmopolitan and Heavy Metal, books by Karen Armstrong on Islam, and even the scientist Richard Dawkins’s atheist treatise, The God Delusion. (‘You just wouldn’t believe how that sells,’ Mr. Saeed said. ‘We buy a thousand copies from Random House every year, year after year.’)”
Saeed is a good source for academic books, and we had discussions with the bookstore about truckload-size prospective purchases in connection with the enhancement of the Edwardes College library that was planned as part of the overall upgrading necessary for degree-awarding status. Unfortunately religious discrimination and intellectual closed-mindedness halted the university project, even at the advanced stage we had reached.
Piled just inside the entrance to Saeed Book Bank is a large array of recent publications about Pakistan, everything from academic ethnographies of the country’s diverse ethnic groups to the many trade books about upheavals in Pakistan since 9/11, all of them seeking to shed light on the murky social, religious geopolitical currents that have made Pakistan what it is today. Thumbing through them and acquiring a number of them up was always a pleasure.
As the article notes, various shades of religious skepticism were easy to find on Saeed’s shelves, as were hundreds of books, many of them devout, on Islam, and some general surveys of world religions. Absent, however, were books specifically on Christian theology, church history or, indeed, Christian topics in general. There would doubtless be a market for such, but even Saeed could not go that far in the current climate of fear and intimidation around religion in Pakistan.
Peshawar’s loss in Saeed’s move was Islamabad’s gain. Pakistan’s capital city, a planned metropolis laid out in ways that still work well after 60 years, is a congenial and stimulating environment – not as cosmopolitan as Delhi or New York, but certainly cosmopolitan compared to Peshawar.
May Saeed Book Bank – and the minds it feeds – continue to prosper!