"Give this book a read. I believe it might change your life!" he winked at me, revealing a missing tooth.
I clutched the book to my chest and skipped away from the shop while my mum hurried to catch up.
Abu Saleh was a man in his mid-fifties or maybe older. He looked just as dusty as his stacks of pre-loved books. His book store was like nothing I'd seen before, or since. The only way I can describe it would be a rabbit hole. I suspected it wasn't meant to be a store at all. My mum's theory was that it could've been a broom closet or something like that which had been annexed to one of the adjacent shops. It was pitch black inside, or so it seemed from the brightness of the outside. Only he, short and thin as he was, could fit in there. The books were in uneven piles that formed what looked like Moses' sea miraculously parting for him.
My mum had taken me to Abu Saleh's for the first time when I was thirteen. It was becoming clear to my parents that I'd loved books more than anything. I had read all the novels in my dad's library, of which he didn't have many because his library mainly consisted of history and science books. My dad didn't really like the idea of me reading fiction all the time. He had hoped for his oldest daughter to become something like him, scholarly. But when his attempts to slip those books into my hand failed, he turned a blind eye to my mum getting me novels, Arabic or translated into Arabic, from her friends and colleagues.
Someone told her about Abu Saleh and his tiny rabbit hole bursting at the seams with books, so one day, after buying me a pair of shoes for school, we diverged into an alley in Old Homs we'd never been to before. The store looked entirely out of place in the passage where they sold cheap home goods and heaps of spices and nuts.
I stood in front of the shop in awe. It seemed narrow but very deep, like an endless tunnel of words. Abu Saleh wasn't there at first, but the man next door selling buckets and hoses hollered for him, and he came running. He greeted us with a smile and jumped over the window sill and into the shop. I forgot to mention that the shop had no door, just a tall window he got in and out of.
When he asked me what I was looking for, I was too overwhelmed to answer him. I just stared at the towering mountains of literature from all over the world; the colourful, albeit faded, covers; the brilliant names of renowned authors, some I knew and some I'd never heard of.
I must've mumbled.
He tried to narrow it down. Was I looking for second-hand textbooks? Past-year exams? Islamic education?
"No, no," my mum shook her head, "she's looking for literature. She loves stories."
I nodded with wide eyes.
He lifted his finger, signalling to wait and disappeared into the dark. He emerged about ten minutes later with four books. I had read one of them and loved it. It was an abridged version of A Tale of Two Cities. You could blame Sydney Carton's love for Lucie for much of my delusion about love for most of my life.
The other three were by authors I didn't know at the time, so I took all three. Abu Saleh gave you the choice of renting the books or buying them. All for a minimal sum. I usually rented them. Sometimes I would buy the ones that became special to me after reading them. I liked looking at them in my bookcase section in the bedroom I shared with my sisters. Back then, I imagined heaven as a place where I had closets full of floral dresses, tubs of fruity ice cream and walls of tatty books.
Anyway, I took the tired-looking book home and devoured it in three days. I was always faced with the dilemma of whether to race through a book to see what happened to my new friends or to savour a book and ration it, knowing I would never re-read it. Life was too short to re-read books. Too many books aged as they waited to be picked up, not to mention those being freshly born, hoping to be enjoyed.
That book did indeed change my life. It was an Arabic translation of Wuthering Heights. It cemented my fanatic romanticism, but when I thought a little deeper about the life-changing message Abu Saleh wanted me to get out of it, I thought it must've been the idea that what really mattered in life was not money or status but rather true, visceral love. Even then, I knew that such love was rare, if at all possible, but I vowed that if I'd ever encountered it, I would never let it go. So you can imagine how many times I fell facedown and wallowed in the mud of relationships.
When I returned the week after, I asked to buy it, but he gently took it from my hand with an apologetic smile, saying he couldn't sell that one. When my mother saw my shoulders slump, she whispered that she would buy me a new copy even if she had to ask her brother in Lebanon to send one. And she kept her promise.
I still have that book today. It has kept me company in all the countries I've lived in. As an exception, I gave it another read many years later, wanting to see if reading it as an adult woman would feel different than when I was a doe-eyed girl. To my surprise, it felt just as simultaneously mystical and animalistic as the first time.
Every time I went back to Syria, I visited Abu Saleh's shop. He didn't remember me of course, but I always lingered, just taking in the smell of yellow paper and old youth. I managed four visits until I went back one sunny afternoon to find the shop gone. Permanently. No magazines strewn outside the window, no columns of books framing the black hole and no Abu Saleh. Instead, there was an old man selling brooms. He said Abu Saleh died sitting in the sun outside his shop. They found him on his wicker chair with his eyes closed, a half-smile on his lips, and his arms crossed against his chest.
I felt engulfed in sudden sadness. The kind of sadness you felt when you finished a book like no other, lost a lover or left your homeland and sat on a plane looking at it from above, knowing it might be years before you saw it again. Or maybe never again.
I pulled my sleeve to wipe a tear that pooled in the corner of my eye and mustered a quivering smile to thank the new man in the window.
As I turned around to leave, I heard him say, "May Allah grant his soul peace. Abu Saleh was a great man. Who would've thought that an illiterate man would inspire so many people to read books?"
"What?" I turned around and moved closer to the man, attempting to read his lips, just in case my ears were playing tricks on me.
The man laughed so hard that his belly shook.
"You didn't know he was illiterate?" he chuckled.
"That can't be!" I shook my head, "All those amazing books he recommended!"
"He was a very smart man that Abu Saleh. He may not have been able to read words, but he was sure able to read people!"
I walked away, amused. Grieving but amused. Also, very curious as to what Abu Saleh read in me all those years. I, for one, looked at myself in the mirror every day and wasn't sure who I really was. I read plenty of books, but it seemed that the more I read books, the less I understood people. Sometimes I wish I were more like Abu Saleh.
The military cracked down on Homs a few weeks after that visit to Syria. I haven't been back since.