KHARTOUM, Feb 10 – It’s as if the dust-caked volumes have been sitting on the shelves of Sudan Bookshop for the past half century since some of them were published.
Three weeks might pass without a single book being sold, said the shop’s general manager, El Tayeb Mohammed Abdel Rahman, who has been associated with the business for decades.
But shutting the doors is not really an option for the 110-year-old store which Abdel Rahman believes is the oldest in Sudan, “and maybe in Africa.”
“It is a famous place,” he said, recounting how people tell him: “Please do your best not to close this shop.”
Tucked away on a garbage-strewn side street in downtown Khartoum, the business reflected a “book culture” which developed under British and Egypt rule and in the post-independence years after 1956, said historian Abdullah Ali Ibrahim.
“So it is a very sad thing” to see the store decline along with the role of books in Sudanese society, Ibrahim said.
“This city used to have the bookstore at the forefront. Now you have restaurants and all these busy, busy commercial things,” he said.
Abdel Rahman, 62, said he has seen documents which that confirm Sudan Bookshop opened in 1902.
Three British businessmen ran it in the early years before it passed into Sudanese ownership in the late 1960s, and then Abdel Rahman took over as manager.
“The government leaders at that time… they used to come here to read and buy books,” he said before recently falling ill, forcing him to close the store at least temporarily.
English-language books and stationery came from London, and Arabic volumes arrived from Lebanon and Egypt, said Abdel Rahman, who remembers receiving orders for Sudanese books from Europe and elsewhere in Africa.
Ibrahim, the historian, doubts Sudan Bookshop is the continent’s oldest but he agrees it was probably the first in Sudan.
It may also have been the first to sell Arabic books, which proliferated in the 1940s with the stirrings of Sudan’s nationalist movement, he said.
“The intellectuals of the 30s, they seemed to get a lot of satisfaction just mingling with the British, looking at the same books, buying the same books,” Ibrahim said.
“Khartoum used to be a colonial city, and so it was a cultured city.”
By the 1960s there were four notable English bookshops downtown near the Nile river but now they are all either gone or, like Sudan Bookshop, in decline, said Ibrahim, 69.
Walking into Sudan Bookshop is like entering a museum.
Near the front door are the English books, including two hardback copies of “Better Cricket for Boys”, a 1965 publication which features black-and-white pictures of batting techniques.
Another is “The Problem of the Soviet Union in the Arab World,” while paperback copies of “The Jungle Book” wait for sale beside two editions of the medical text, “Proctology”.
There is also “The New Hungarian Quarterly”, winter 1975 edition, and decade-old copies of “Sudan Now” magazine.
Not everything is old, though, Abdel Rahman pointed out. He also sells university academic studies published over the past decade, and modern dictionaries.
Arabic books are more numerous, stacked on shelves labelled “English Textbooks.”
At the cluttered glass booth where he works beside the front door, Abel Rahman said Sudan Bookshop had a reputation for stocking everything.
“Before, it was like that. Maybe now, not,” he said.
To his left is the stationery section: Dust-covered red diaries from 1988, Kappy brand typewriter cleaner (“So fast so clean cleans typewriter keys at a touch!”), adding machine tape and invoice forms in flowing script from a bygone era.
A sign on the wall offers a “cash and wrap” service.
“Nowadays it’s not like before, not much people looking for the books or stationery,” said Abdel Rahman, wearing a business uniform of grey suit, matching tie and cufflinks.
He blames the rise of new technology and the Internet, as well as Sudan’s worsening economic climate.
People’s real incomes have fallen sharply while the costs of running the shop have escalated, said Abdel Rahman, who has another business on the side and is not financially dependent on the book trade.
Revenue from the shop does not even cover the telephone and electricity bills, let alone the monthly rent of 9,000 pounds (about $1,800).
During the interview — on an unusually busy morning — several prospective customers made enquiries and one paid 20 pounds for an Arabic book about economic theory. Abdel Rahman noted the sale on a small yellow piece of paper.
Even about 15 years ago, Ibrahim wondered if Sudan Bookshop could survive.
“It deteriorated considerably,” he said. “It seems like it’s still a very desolate place.”
The professor, who studied in the United States and ran unsuccessfully for president of Sudan in 2010, said post-independence nationalism helped to de-emphasise the role of English in the country’s education system.
The trend accelerated under the Islamist regime which has been in power since 1989.
Sudan’s literacy rate is 61 percent, according to the United Nations.
“We used to have very serious, serious studies of English literature. Shakespeare, Shaw and all those people. All that is gone,” Ibrahim said.
Gone, too, are the “great ideas” of nationalism, socialism and Marxism which until the 1960s provided the context in which books flourished, said Ibrahim, who “very much” regrets the demise of a literary culture.
For Abdel Rahman the bookseller, business may be shaky but his faith in the written word is unwavering.
“I myself, Tayeb Abdel Rahman, I think the book is better than everything,” he said.