A few months ago I had some guests over for coffee. It was the first time some of them were visiting me in my house and one woman said, “I didn’t know you had so many books, I would have borrowed from you instead of the library.”
I smiled and didn’t say anything. My mom who was visiting from overseas said. “This is nothing. She has more at my place back at home.”
“What do you do with all this?” she asked next.
A few days ago again I had guests from far away and over coffee one of them said,
“These are all you husband’s books, yeah. Have you read any?”
It was my daughter this time who answered saying, “No. These are my mom’s books. My dad didn’t read that much. He was the artist, he painted. My mom is the writer.”
“I guess you have trained yourself to read then, heh?”
Have I? I thought and didn’t say anything. What could I say?
If I say I love books, I love to read, I wouldn’t be doing myself justice. What I have for books is more than love, more than passion. It started way back in my childhood. Both my parents loved to read. I am forever grateful to my mom for igniting that fire in me and for my dad, who never said no when I asked him for money to buy books. We did not have libraries to borrow books from. In fact the fondest memory I have from my childhood is on New Year’s eve. No matter what else I got for presents I would always get books from my aunt. I would take them to my room, open them, smell the pages, and then start to read.
We lived in a small village in the East of the Bekaa valley. I walked to school every day. When I was in elementary, my cousin who was then in senior high had study sessions after school. Often I would sneak into her classroom and sit beside her to read, until I saw my father standing at the door waiting to take me home.
Later at home my mother would come to my room after midnight to switch off the light and order me to go to sleep, but I had a torch with me and I would continue to read under the covers, something she admits to having done herself years before.
By the time I entered university the civil war had already started in Lebanon. The American University of Beirut where I studied was in West Beirut. I lived on campus. Every Monday morning before going to my class I crossed the street to the nearest bookstore, Librairie Du Liban, and spent most of my weekly allowance on books. This went on for the seven semesters I was there to get my Bachelor’s degree and teaching diploma. By the time I graduated the situation in the city and all over the country had deteriorated so much that instead of looking for a job I went back to live with my parents. Weeks passed and on my birthday my mom gave me money to go shopping for a pair of shoes and a handbag. I was back in no time with two full bags of books and owing money to the bookstore. Call me crazy.
Not long after, I got married and we moved back to the city. We rented a furnished studio in the West, close to my husband’s work. Again I was not working, since I had missed the application deadline for the schools in my neighborhood. Things around us got so out of control, within a week it went from bad to worse. Even the place where we lived, Hamra street, became a war zone. Gunmen were everywhere, on the streets, entering buildings doing the unthinkable. Every morning after my husband left for work I sat on my bed terrorized wondering whether he would be back home safe. Would gunmen enter our building? Would a bomb hit us? Honore de Balzac wrote;
“Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.”
So I did what I knew to do best, I read. This time I read not because I loved books, not because I loved to read. I read to forget, I read to escape the war, the despair, the destruction around me, but mostly I read to simply live.
And after my husband passed away and I couldn’t function anymore on most days, I read yet again to forget. I read to forget my pain. I read to forget everything.
“You forget everything. The hours slip by. You travel in your chair through centuries you seem to see before you, your thoughts are caught up in the story, dallying with the details or following the course of the plot, you enter into characters, so that it seems as if it were your own heart beating beneath their costumes.” Gustave Flaubert