By Gabrielle Hunt
On a pleasant February day, a friend and I were strolling around Dawar Paris—the café hub of the hip neighborhood known as Jabal al-Webdeih in Amman, Jordan. In search of a spot for productivity and frozen mint lemonades, we stumbled upon a 1974 Mercedes covered from bumper to windshield in books. Enter Gaith Jann, the bearded, beanie-wearing owner.
Gaith greeted us welcomingly, in line with the Jordanian hospitality for which the country is known. We began looking through the numerous books on the bumper of his car, which ranged from George Orwell’s “Animal Farm” to Plato’s “Republic” to Stephen Hawking’s “Brief History of Time.” More impressive than the variety, though, was that Gaith seemed to know something about every title we asked about.
For four dinar (a little over five U.S. dollars) each, my friend and I both bought books—and learned a little bit more about Gaith. For starters, this bookselling venture on the back of his vintage car—“Books on the Road”—was only a small part of his larger mission of reviving the love of reading in Jordanian culture. In addition to selling books in Dawar Paris around every Thursday, he also runs a bookstore in Madaba—a quaintly historical, church-lined town a few miles from Amman—called Kawon, which means “universe” in Arabic. For four dinar, one can buy a book and then continually exchange it for another with no additional cost. Most of the books come from donated collections; Gaith’s oldest book is around 120 years old.
Through the exchange, we were able to engage Gaith a bit more about his background and pick his brain on his personal mission. He used to work in the corporate world as an insurance risk analyst, but left it in search of a more ulterior path. At his shop in Madaba—which, though it sells books, also functions as a cultural space for free exchange of ideas—he revealed that he felt like a “monkey” while working in corporate, which I later pried him on for more explanation.
Working in corporate, he said, was like living in a zoo. He felt that his only job was to stare at “people staring back at [him],” and that fitting the clean-cut business mold was like being caged. “…bounded by the contract I signed, I felt I [had] no purpose except to accomplish their goals,” he told me. So he left his job and began selling books, fueled by a nostalgic memory of a childhood constantly surrounded by literature, and the goal of doing something that felt fulfilling.
Fueled entirely by book sales, he’s also been renovating Kawon—the centuries-old, tiny room that is his bookstore in Madaba—to become the cultural space he envisions it to be. He imagines the space to be a center of social activism, but more importantly, a haven of pluralism and acceptance. He emphasized that he named it “Kawon” to foster the very universality the word means—when one walks in, social identifiers and troubles alike are left outside. His next step is to expand into the lot next to it, in addition to adding a bathroom, because as of now, “People don’t stay very long.”
He doesn’t consider his work now, though, a job—but rather an opportunity to not be bound to the expectations of mainstream Jordanian society and instead can seek opportunities and further develop his ideas.
Gaith’s main mission is reviving the love of learning through reading in Jordanian society, something he believes is lost on many people because of both decreasing emphasis on reading as leisure, and life in Jordan growing harder. Though the issues at play are complex and nuanced, Gaith and I both seemed to agree that it seems the “TV culture” (the base of Jordanian home life is focused around sitting in front of a television, and Turkish, Egyptian, and Bollywood series are religiously followed here) of Jordan is what has largely contributed to decreased reading.
Additionally, Gaith explained that life is getting more difficult, as the cost of living has increased and less people are able to afford books, making them luxury goods more than ever. In our interactions, it seemed that this part was especially upsetting to him, because the only way for people to mend these type of social ills is through activism, and reading is the key to understanding social discourse and upheaval—and the tools by which to enact it. The most poignant point that came out of my interactions with him were that without reading, we can’t do anything.
Another interesting point that came from our interactions were Gaith’s allusions to what I termed a “voyeuristic” culture in Jordan. He briefly told a story of sitting with a female friend visiting from Germany outside his store in Madaba, and being met with uncomfortable stares and subtle backlash. He remarked, similarly to his zoo metaphor, that “all people can do is stare.” He went on to say that though the situation is getting better, many people in Jordan still find it hard to participate in interactions—like non-gender-segregated ones as this one—they aren’t used to.
I pondered whether this was a result of decreased reading and Gaith seemed to agree—he remarked that reading has the potential to conceptualize expectations of foreign cultures better and cultivate the opportunity for sharing common knowledge—albeit acknowledging there is no simple answer, and that hesitance about “outsiders” is nothing specific to Jordan. Dealing with cross-cultural encounters—whether in the U.S. or in Jordan or anywhere in the world—is especially relevant to our current social discourses on identity and the type of society we wish to live in.
On that Thursday we met Gaith, we bid him farewell with books in hand; my friend with an Arabic translation of the “Little Prince,” and I with “The Gaze”—a Turkish book by Elif Safak about “an obese woman and her lover, a dwarf, [who] are sick of being stared at.”