Sheila Markham

in conversation

The Interviews

Nadeem El Issa

Nadeem El Issa

This is a simple story of a man who loves books, and thought England was the best place to set up a book business. I was born in Palestine in 1945. When my family was driven out, we settled in Jordan and I went to school in Amman. I come from a Christian family and received my junior education from the Christian Missionary Society before moving to Terra Sancta College. My education was completed at the American University in Beirut where I took an MA in Public Administration in 1970.

My love of books started early in childhood. Every year I was given books at Christmas, Easter and on my birthday. My father served as an officer with the British Army in Palestine and was awarded a Military MBE in 1937, and perhaps he was an Anglophile. One of my earliest memories is reading Treasure Island with him, which he translated sentence by sentence and that is how I began to learn English.

After university in Beirut I worked for a few years as the book distribution manager for the Institute for Palestine Studies. It was a peaceful time to be in Beirut and a pleasant place to live. However the cost of living was very high and I was not making ends meet. A relative offered me a job in Abu Dhabi where I worked for him and eventually ran my own business.

While I was in Abu Dhabi I received catalogues from book dealers who specialised in the Middle East. I also came to England from time to time and bought books for my personal enjoyment mainly from Adab Books, David Loman, Kingswood Books, and Anthony Hall. In order to keep a record of the books in my subject – their value and from where I bought them – I set up a makeshift computer program, into which I entered my own collection. For ten to fifteen years I ordered books from dealers, feeding information from their catalogues into my computer. This database was quite invaluable when I eventually came to set up my own business.

At one point while I was still in Abu Dhabi, I decided to buy a bookshop in London. Together with a friend and business partner, we bought Routledge & Kegan Paul’s shop in Store Street in 1983. My partner and myself have known each other since university in Beirut. We share a common interest in books, and have worked together on many occasions. However this was our worst enterprise. The number of employees went up from two to six, and the annual turnover went down from £130,000 to £70,000.

I had a cousin who was also a partner and ran the shop while I was in Abu Dhabi. When things were not going well, I told him to terminate the employees and close the shop at once as the cheapest way out. He refused to do this and, in the event, he bought our shares, took over the business and it collapsed shortly thereafter. The experience taught me never to have a shop again. My own book business would be strictly mail order.

Originally I thought of starting my business in Lebanon, Cyprus or Jordan, but there is no way you can run a mail-order book business in such places. The post in the Middle East is fine as long as you are sending a letter or a gadget. A Philishave for example will get through all right, because the Customs man knows what it is, but a book is immediately suspect. From books you might pick up strange and invariably dangerous ideas – such as democratic ideas, or they might contain something defamatory to the religion of Islam.

Whenever I arrived at the airport in Abu Dhabi with, for example, a five-volume set of Picturesque Palestine under my arm, it was immediately confiscated. The next day I had to go to the Ministry of Information to beg for my book back, where an official would have to sit down and read it first. Of course the capability of that person to understand the book is zero – if he had any more brains, he would not be doing that job.

Twenty years on nothing has changed. On a recent trip to the Gulf, I toyed with the idea of setting up a branch of Joppa Books in a Free Zone area. My reasoning was that a Free Zone area meant just that. In order to put my mind at rest, I visited the local branch of the Ministry of Information to enquire specifically about the effect of censorship laws in the Free Zone area. I did not have to go beyond the secretary who fixed me with a knowing stare and confirmed that censorship laws applied equally to the Free Zone area. And to dampen my arrogance as I came from England he added that, although I might not be aware of it, he knew for sure that censorship in England was far more strict than anywhere in the Arab world. My plans for Joppa Books in the Free Zone area died a rather sudden death.

I also inquired about the situation in Turkey. I like Turkey and the Turks and would like to have set up a book business there, but the same problems arise to a lesser degree. In the end England was the obvious choice – the post is excellent, there is no censorship, and no VAT on books inshallah – and on January 1 1989, I started Joppa Books at my home in Surrey.

When I mentioned to David Loman that I was setting up, he said ‘now you’re trade’, and it struck me for the first time that, after so many years of collecting, I was now in the business. Anne Rockall and Allan Dollery of Kingswood Books helped me to get going, and told me about remainder dealers whose activities I had never come across before. Daphne Roper of Adab Books also taught me a lot about the business.

For my opening stock I used a collection of books on the Middle East I had inherited from my father, to which I added some of the books I had purchased at university. I was also given some books from my uncle and these were all lumped together and entered in my computer. Within a couple of months I was ready to publish my first list.

At the same time, I enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies to start an MA course. I was so disgusted with the political situation in the Middle East that I wanted to find out what makes an Arab tick. I was also looking after an uncle who was in and out of hospital, in addition to setting up and running the business single-handed. Eventually I submitted my dissertation and was awarded my MA, but the load was too much and I had a heart attack on the same day my uncle died. By the way I never discovered what makes an Arab tick, but, for those who are interested, Raphael Patai’s The Arab Mind comes very close to solving this enigma.

For the first couple of years of my business, I invested a huge amount of time in feeding bibliographical information into my computer. The process had already begun years ago in Abu Dhabi, and the result is that today I probably have the most comprehensive and concentrated database on Middle East books that exists. When I started looking for a serious program for antiquarian bookselling, I visited Charles Ross in Bath and then Bruce Leigh and Scott Moore of Aries Business Systems in Cheltenham. I told them about my existing makeshift program, and with a lot of input from me and a lot from other people, they came up with the best computer program for secondhand book dealers in use.

From the start I wanted to use the computer to produce short, concentrated lists on specific subjects. I did not want to bombard my customers with huge catalogues full of material irrelevant to their interests. In an average year I produce a list every two weeks. Nowadays Joppa Books is like a mill – I call it repackaging, with purchases coming in and orders going out.

My average working day is a minimum of twelve hours and I would not exchange a single minute for anything else in the world. My wife also helps in the business and we employ a part-time packer. My partner is not involved on a day-to-day basis, and for that reason he often has a clearer vision of the business. He also has experience of the financial world and this is the type of assistance he is providing at the moment.

I have been an active member of the PBFA since day one of the business. They were tremendously helpful when I had two or three bad debts, which were sorted out very discreetly. I have not done a book fair for seven years. My last book fair was in Leatherhead, which is next door to my home in Surrey. I lugged eight cases of books and sat next to them for the whole day, sold a book for £3 and went home. It was not, as the Americans say, a very cost-effective operation.

There is not a single book fair in the whole of the Middle East to compare with what goes on here every month. Once a year in Cairo there is a new book fair, but it is a very different experience from visiting the London International Book Fair. Every publisher in the Arab world brings his books to exhibit in Cairo – not by title, but by weight. Piles and piles of the same book are exhibited by the ton. 95% of the material is of Islamic interest. Rather like the Jews, Muslims go in for commentaries on the commentaries of somebody’s commentary.

Egypt is still the best place in the Middle East to buy new and old books. There are also one or two good dealers in Amman and Aleppo where I am going shortly. Damascus also has a good dealer and there are plenty of books around. They say people are selling treasures in the streets of Baghdad to be able to buy food. I toyed with the idea of going, but it is illegal to export books and, anyway, I could not bring myself to buy someone’s treasures in those circumstances.

Once you start taking books out of an Arab country, you need to know the ropes. In Cairo I am lucky to have an old friend well versed in the system. I leave my purchases with him and collect them at Heathrow. There is a process for exporting books. First you have to prepare a list for the Ministry of Information. This has to be stamped, but of course they do not stamp it just like that – you have to be ‘nice’ to this man and ‘nice’ to that man and so on.

Lebanon was a huge source of old books before the troubles began in 1975. When I was a student it was still a very open country and we were able to buy – under the counter – rather risqué material from an avant garde bookshop on Bliss Street. There were houses full of books in Beirut and I sometimes wonder where they are now.

After seven years of Joppa Books, 70% of my business is outside this country. The geographical distribution is quite interesting: in the Middle East, for example, 95% is concentrated in Israel and 5% covers the whole of the Arab world. Although there are some great Arab book collectors and certainly heavyweight scholars, the Arab is by and large not a very prolific reader. In the Middle East newspapers and magazines are much more popular than books, which are considered a bit heavy – both in weight and content. I have a friend in Abu Dhabi, a very educated man and a successful engineer, who reads a book once a year. He buys it at the airport before going on vacation. If he does not finish it, he leaves it till next year.

When I first started collecting, I had grandiose ideas about the scale of my collection. I wanted to collect everything about the Middle East, but soon realised that this was an endless endeavour. Having been humbled I now concentrate on eighteenth and nineteenth century travel books on Greater Syria – the Levant is a European term given to our part of the world. One of my favourite books is the first printed edition of a Thousand and One Nights, edited by W. H. McNaughtan and published in Arabic in four huge volumes in Calcutta, 1839-1842. It is of course a work that has been translated many times in many editions. Night 285 is the litmus test for a good translation, as it is more or less pornographic and missing from many editions.

Richard Madden’s Travels in Turkey, 1829, contains the most brilliant observations about the Middle East and yet very few collectors have it. Edward Napier, the son of the celebrated British Commodore, also wrote an excellent book, Reminiscences of Syria, 1843, which is also rare and very desirable. Every other collector has David Roberts, or at least a plate. His work has been reprinted so many times and there are no half measures – either you pay thousands of pounds for the folios or you make do with a run-of-the-mill edition. Madden and Napier are in a different category and these are the type of books I go for.

There are around 2,600 dealers in Sheppard’s Directory, out of which maybe twenty touch on the Middle East. Of these perhaps ten are strictly Middle East, and as few as five deal in strictly academic books on the Middle East in English, Arabic, French and German. I am one of the five. In January I began a PhD at Royal Holloway University on the role and function of urban and rural notables in mid-nineteenth century Palestine.

I have to be very careful about my academic work, which tends to make me slightly aloof and even condescending in my business activities. Not everybody wants to buy academic books and the market certainly is not built on professors who, in many cases, no longer have budgets to buy books. It is the broad base of general readers that we must address and I try to remember this.

Joppa Books has now reached a stage where it is crying out for expansion. There are various ways to grow and we must choose the least costly and the one that can build on the existing foundation in terms of our database and expertise. At the end of the day, that is what we are really selling.

Interviewed for the Bookdealer in February 1996


Nadeem El Issa

A Poland & Steery Co-production