Graveyard Of Biases And Prejudices — Islamabad’s Old Book Collection
The absence of public libraries in Islamabad—the city of power—makes these bookshops very valuable. There are only few of these bookshops in the city but they cater to the taste of city residents. Some of the them specialise in supplying latest literature—I mean whatever is published around the world, you can get a first copy of that literature in city’s bookshops. But there is one bookshop that stands out among a dozen of bookshops that the city has—it’s the Old Book Collection in one corner of Jinnah Super Market in Islamabad facing the Pan shop.
The shop is inconspicuous by outer appearance—glass doors and few broken wooden bookshelves that are placed out side the outer door hardly attract the visitors to the market. And yet it is the most frequented bookshop in town. Reason? Because it houses the books from the private libraries of foreign diplomats leaving Pakistan, dead or dying bureaucrats or university professors and books from the private collections of other book lovers, from the around the city or its vicinity, whose children sell their fathers’ collection for paltry sums after their deaths.
Sometimes a bibliophile under financial or economic pressure has to sell his or her books in order to purchase new books. So he or she too finds this shop convenient to sell his or her collection here to purchase new one.
The result is a huge collection of books of every type and subject—literature, philosophy, history, politics, international relations, political theory, literary criticism, India, Pakistan, Russia, USA, Britain, Roman history, Ancient history, Toynbee, Romila Thapper, Richard Eton, Karl Marx, Karl Popper, Robert Kaplan, Tolstoy, Dickens, you name it—everything is available here.
No walls or floors are visible when you enter the small room in which Old Book Collection is located—its books everywhere—stacked from floor to the ceiling. When you enter the shop, to the left you will find books on philosophy—both ancient like Greeks, Hindu, Islamic or Chinese, and modern like Marx, Bertrand Russell and other western philosophers. You will also find commentary on Islamic philosophers, Vadentic philosophies and Ancient Chinese philosophies. But the Marxist literature—especially the works of Karl Marx and commentary on his works are the specialty of this bookshop.
Facing the shelf on philosophy is the small shelf on book related to the Islamic world especially the Middle East. This shelf extends from the start of the small room to the end of it, cutting the shop into two halves. And on this rather longer shelf you will find the books on world history, international politics, World Wars, regional wars, Indian politics, American politics, ancient and modern empires, Afghanistan and topics related to Pakistan’s security.
It is almost impossible for a new comer to find a book of his choice from the endless stacks of books placed haphazardly from one corner of the shop to the other—but for one person—this is a the manager of the bookshop, Mr Kamran. Although he is himself not an intellectual, as he never claims to be one, he knows exactly where to find the book of customers’ choice, “We purchase whole library or private collections” Kamran told this scribe, “So I memorise every book, its topic and its author”.
When I was first introduced to this shop more than 20 years ago I was attracted to a shelf in the left corner of the shop, which contained books on Indian history. Fortunately for me I found the books authored by Romila Thaper and Marxist historian of Indian history, Irfan Habib on this shelf. That was the start of the process of dissolution of my religious and national and ethnic prejudices and biases.
The process of dissolution of prejudices and biases is very painful process—its takes away from you the certainties of life and your beliefs start to evaporate into thin air. But as they say, “Getting history wrong is part of being a nationalist”. Ultimately the things start to become clearer than they are at the start—you come to realise that the humanity and humans are older and more permanent entities than the demarcations of national boundaries and the attached prejudices and biases.
Books on political philosophy is another specialty of this bookshop—Francis Fakayuma, Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Aristotle, Niccolò Machiavelli, Hamid Inayat, Karl Marx, and other western and eastern political philosophers are all stacked here one over the other. One common feature of all these philosophers was that they taught the humanity to think about politics on the basis of rationality and not according to you biases and prejudices. Fears, hate, biases and emotions are not the proper basis to understand and analyzes politics—politics must be understood on the basis of rational thinking faculty and on the basis of facts and information you acquire from the society on basis of rational thinking.
The Old Book Collection rivals any medium size public library in the uniqueness of the collection of books—I have been to bookshop around the country, in each and every major city of Pakistan, and I have yet to come across a bookshop which is more unique as far as collection of books are concerned. I stopped reading fiction long time ago—perhaps my taste for hard political analysis doesn’t match the imaginary style of fiction. But Old Book shop is full of books on Russia, English, Chinese, India and Pakistani fiction. Kamran tells me that the largest number of books he sells every day is of fiction, “People of Islamabad are fond of fiction” he says.
Although it is an old bookshop, there are stead and continuous flows of latest books published around the world into this shop. Sometimes you find books here, which don’t find in any bookshop in the city. A British historian, Michael Cook published a book by the name of “Ancient Religions modern politics—a study of fundamentalism in three religious traditions, Islam, Hinduism and Latin Christianity— some five to eight years back.
Since then, no bookshop in Islamabad, Karachi or Lahore kept this book on its bookshelf. One year ago I found the book in Old Book collection. It was a marvelous read. I sometimes Joke with Mr Kamran that your bookshop is a graveyard of my religious, ethnic and national prejudices and biases—and just like me it is a graveyard of biases of so many others.
Umer Farooq is an Islamabad-based freelance journalist. He writes on security, foreign policy and domestic political issues.