As my travel horizons widened I found my suitcases of English-language books could open doors and make friends, not to mention pay the bills, all over the world. Or at least Eastern Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa – anywhere I could travel overland to from the UK.
From Khaleej Times: “In the late 1960s, petrodollars were filling Abu Dhabi’s coffers and new infrastructural projects, like schools and hospitals, were only starting to come up. But for those who loved the printed word, there was not a single bookshop in the emirate.
“That was when 20-year-old Tahseen Al Khayat, originally from Beirut, landed in Abu Dhabi from Kuwait with a suitcase full of books. “
The full post is a must-read for those wanting to understand the extraordinary interest in books in the UAE. Sharjah’s Bodour Al Qasimi and family are not mentioned in this post where the focus is on Abu Dhabi, although Bodour’s elders were of course following a similar love affair with the printed word, per TNPS:
But it also triggered fond memories for me. As a young travel writer I discovered the power of a suitcase full of English-language books when visiting the then Soviet Union and the so-called Eastern Bloc countries. No opportunity to set up a bookstore, of course, but I’d discovered a new currency – English-language books – that would help finance my trips around the globe many times over.
I travelled overland back then (air travel was the luxury of the rich and anyway you learn so much more on the ground with local people for company) and travelled pretty much Jack Reacher style when it came to personal possessions, but accompanied by as many suitcases of (second-hand) books as I could squeeze onto a coach or train, explaining to bemused customs officials that I was a “heavy reader”.
At first I thought this interest in English-language books was peculiar to the so-called communist states and a reflection of government-imposed restricted reading opportunities.
But as my travel horizons widened I found my suitcases of English-language books could open doors and make friends, not to mention pay the bills, all over the world. Or at least Eastern Europe, Asia, Middle East and Africa – anywhere I could travel overland to from the UK. (My Americas travel needed air-fare funding and whole new strategy.)
Which I guess is why I am endless fascinated by, but not at all surprised by, the success of the Big Bad Wolf operation I so frequently cover in TNPS.
The bitter irony is I’m now resident in West Africa where I struggle daily (esp. since Covid hit the tourism trade) to find books in a country where reading for pleasure is all but unknown and nonsensical territorial restrictions mean many digital books are completely off-limits.
Thanks for this incredibly interesting article, Mark.