A bookseller's last chapter?

By Andrew Franklin, April 8, 2011

This time of year, as we prepare for Passover, we think of Jerusalem more than ever. Imagine that you had been born in Jerusalem, lived there throughout your childhood with your family and left to study in America. You stayed on, got married and had a family before deciding to return to the city of your birth.

Back in Jerusalem, you set up and ran a hugely admired bookshop that became the centre of your life. Now imagine that, 16 years after your return, you are threatened with deportation. These are exactly the circumstances of Munther Fahmi, the "Bookseller of Jerusalem", who runs the famed American Colony Bookshop in the city's best hotel, The American Colony.

I first met Munther in 1997, when I was in the city for the Jerusalem International Book Fair and exploring its bookshops. I was hugely impressed by the breadth of his knowledge, his passion for books, his openness to all sides of an argument, his eclectic reading and the breadth of visitors he welcomed to his shop. As is the case with most of his customers, we have been friends ever since.

Munther, now 57, was born near where he now runs the shop. Like so many Arab residents of East Jerusalem, Munther's status is uncertain under Israeli rules. Until last year, he relied on tourist visas (with the acquiescence of the immigration authorities) in his US passport, but the authorities have now said that he must leave this month if his final appeal for clemency fails.

There is no reason for this, no action on his part, simply a change of line by officials in the Ministry of the Interior.

Books are piled to the ceiling, high on tables and in mounds on the floor

The American Colony Bookshop is, by general agreement, the best international bookshop not only in Jerusalem but throughout Israel and Palestine. Fahmi stocks an extraordinarily wide range of books in his small but cavernous premises. There are books right the way up to the ceiling, piled high on the table and in mounds on the floor. The shop has fiction and non-fiction on all aspects of the Middle East conflict as well as wider general books. Books on display encompass Left and Right, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews, Christians and Muslims. As a result, his shop is a haunt for academics, authors, journalists, translators, publishers and readers.

An international campaign is under way to overturn the Israeli Interior Ministry's ruling. Heading the supporters are David Grossman and Amos Oz, Israel's two finest contemporary writers; Ian McEwan, who was awarded this year's Jerusalem Prize; and Simon Sebag Montefiore, author of 2011's first non-fiction, number-one bestseller Jerusalem, the Biography.

Three Booker prize-winners, one Nobel laureate, and the directors of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Jerusalem International Book Fair and Geraldine D'Amico, director of Jewish Book Week, have all sent letters in support, and the letters keep pouring in. Nearly 2,000 writers, translators, publishers, including almost all the international publishers at the recent Jerusalem International Book Fair, as well as many others, academics and readers, have signed a petition in support of the "Bookseller of Jerusalem" and the chorus of support continues to build.

Jerusalem, if it is to be an international city, needs more places like the American Colony Bookshop where a plurality of voices can be heard - and books made available that you cannot find anywhere else in the Middle East.

Will the campaign succeed? It is impossible to say whether such a broad groundswell of opinion will make a difference or not. Israel's record of its treatment of the Palestinian population of Jerusalem is unhappy and this is a hardline government. On the other hand, the "Bookseller of Jerusalem" is a hugely popular figure across the board and, like the popular campaign to save libraries from closure in the UK, perhaps this is one voice just too clear and loud to silence.

Let's hope so, and let's hope, for the sake of the city, for book-lovers and readers, for his family, and for the good name of Israel that it will indeed be: next year in Jerusalem.

Andrew Franklin is founder and managing director of Profile Books in London and was awarded the Friend of Jerusalem prize at the Jerusalem International Book Fair in 2005

Last updated: 5:49pm, April 8 2011