Harriet Sherwood, and the Guardian’s strange fixation on the survival of one Jerusalem bookshop

Back in April I posted about a report by the Guardian’s Conal Urquhart (who was briefly filling in for the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent Harriet Sherwood)  titled “Israeli authors join campaign to keep Arab bookseller in the country, April 3, which warned that a bookshop at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem was in danger of closing.  

The story focused on the shop’s owner, Munther Fahmi, who was in danger of losing his Israeli residency.

Fahmi was born in 1954 in the “East” section of Jerusalem then under Jordanian control, and moved to the U.S. when he was 21 where he lived for nearly 20 years.  Upon his return to Israel in the 90s, and opening the bookshop, Fahmi had been living on temporary tourism visas, which, recently, was in danger of not being renewed. (Fahmi’s parents, like many Arabs in East Jerusalem, had declined Israel’s offer of citizenship following the Six Day War.)

Urquhart characterized the dispute, in his April report, over Fahmi’s residency status as politically motivated, and quoted an Israeli journalist claiming that the dispute was “symptomatic of the chauvinistic and intolerant behaviour” (towards Palestinians) displayed by Israel’s current government.

Well, evidently Israel’s chauvinism and intolerance was short-lived, as yesterday, Jan. 27, Harriet Sherwood reported, in “Palestinian bookshop owner celebrates Jerusalem residency ruling“, that Fahmi had been granted a two-year residency extension which his lawyers were confident would likely lead to permanent residency status.

Of course, the broader political narrative advanced by Urquhart and Sherwood is itself highly misleading, suggesting that Palestinians (non-citizens) who have residency status are exceptional in the threat they face in losing their status if out of the country for an extended time.  In the U.S., for instance, absences of one year or more can result in the loss of permanent resident status.

But, such immigration and residency issues aside, the significance imputed to Fahmi’s bookshop – which Sherwood described as a “celebrated Jerusalem bookshop patronised by politicians, diplomats, authors and activists” – is difficult to comprehend.

Indeed, back in April, Urquhart characterized the bookshop as arguably “the only decent English-language bookshop in the country.”

Further, Urquhart, in stressing how vital the bookshop was, uncritically included Fahmi’s specious claim that is was very “hard [in Israel] to get English-language books [and that] many Israeli authors who wrote in English could not sell their books in their own country.”

However, the suggestion that there is a paucity of English books in Israel (or that Israeli authors writing in English can’t sell their books here) should strike anyone who lives, or has spent any time, in the nation – where shops offering new and used English books are abundant – as especially peculiar. 

I came to this determination about the grossly inflated significance of Fahmi’s shop while visiting the store in April, but I decided to return (cell phone camera in hand) to demonstrate to those who haven’t been to the shop why I remain curious about all the press the story is receiving.

Here’s a photo I took yesterday of the bookshop, which is roughly the size of the bedroom in my Jerusalem apartment.

This photo captures the entire size of the store, with the exception of a bookshelf to the left of the woman pictured

Further, I observed in my original post that Urquhart’s characterization of the shop as “a haven of tolerance for scholars in a bitterly divided city” seemed at odds with the works they carried, which, for instance, included, as their sole book about the Holocaust, Norman Finkelstein’s notorious “The Holocaust Industry”.

But, I decided before leaving this time to pay closer attention to the fifteen or so books in the shop’s display window, to see what Fahmi was promoting to facilitate tolerance and harmony in this “bitterly divided city”, as bookshops typically use such retail window space to promote books which sell briskly, or possess a unique, or important, literary quality.

Here’s what I found. 

As an Israeli, I’m certainly relieved at the reprieve for this literary oasis in the otherwise barren Israeli intellectual landscape – a mecca of ‘peace and co-existence’ which will also certainly never be accused of surrendering to Jewish supremacism.

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