The recognition of the transformative power of knowledge over the human condition has led to many societies’ reverence of the written word. Today, the world turns its back on the paperbound book as the internet allows instantaneous access to the work of scholars past and present. Learning is quick and convenient, but has perhaps bred a generation that ignores the complexities of pertinent issues. Amidst digitised media’s assailment of the modern mind, however stands a set of people that still believes in the grand love affair between people and books. Mr. Ibrahim Tahir is one such person, and the object of his life’s work is simple: to reconcile people with books once more. Ibrahim is a bookseller, and has been plying his trade in an area that was once synonymous with erudition and literary sophistication – Kampong Glam.
This was once the literary capital of the Malay World, with North Bridge Road being where the first independent Malay-language daily, Warta Malaya (Malaya Times) was established in 1930 (Roff, 1994). In 1938, some of its staff, including Yusof Ishak and Abdul Rahim Kajai would go on to found Utusan Melayu (The Malay Courier) – the first Malay paper fully owned, staffed and financed by ethnic Malays – a short distance away at Queen Street (Maidin, 2013). At No. 34 Arab Street, Toko Haji Hashim was opened in 1922, but now the company only maintains an outlet at Joo Chiat Complex. On Kandahar Street, the renowned scholar and translator Syed Ahmad Semait established Pustaka Nasional at No. 40 in 1963. It was prolific in publishing literary Malay works, and much of its repertoire consisted of religious texts – many translated from the original Arabic to Malay by Syed Ahmad himself.
Throughout Kampong Glam, the same scholarly and artistic atmosphere permeated. On Bussorah Street several Malay booksellers had set up shop beginning in the late 19th century. Indeed, the first Malay bookshop-print centres were mostly clustered around this iconic stretch, which was referred to as Sultan Road or Lorong Masjid Sultan until 1909. At No. 43, a Javanese migrant by the name of Haji Muhammad Siraj had opened his store in 1883 – the largest in Kampong Glam at the time. His brother Sidek set up his own shop next door at No. 42 in 1891, whilst prolific printer Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Muhammad Arsyad began operations from No.s 47 and 51 in 1870 (“Booksellers of Kampong Glam: A History” by Ibrahim Tahir). The same year Utusan Melayu was founded, an Arab publisher of the Qur’an, Sulaiman Marie, opened his bookshop Maktabah Marie on Bussorah Street as well. With at least four book establishments within that short strip between the Mosque and Baghdad Street, one can imagine the degree of intellectual dynamism that existed here. Maktabah Marie, later renamed Pustaka Abdul Hafiz At-Tamimi, was an important gathering place for students, scholars and Malay youth. Even Ramli Sarip, the famous Malay rock singer spent much time here in the company of fellow artists and musicians – what was later called ‘the Bussorah Connection’. Being such a prominent hub of creative and intellectual intermingling, one can imagine the district as being the Singapore Malay community’s own little Montparnasse.
Yet today, the creative energy of the district has largely faded away, having become an exoticised tourist destination. The spirit of Malay political activism and scholarly debate is now buried under the façade of Middle Eastern shisha cafes and kebab restaurants. At No. 58, however, lies present-day Bussorah Street’s only bookshop – Wardah Books. Its range of English-language titles cover the breath of Islam’s manifold themes. There, housed amidst the quaint thoroughfares of Kampong Glam, the visitor is treated to a vast selection. He may find anything ranging from the history of the Ottoman Empire to the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, from books on the Arab-Israeli conflict to the commentaries of political critic Noam Chomsky.
“We see ourselves as continuing a tradition,” Ibrahim says, although he insists he opened his store here without any prior knowledge of the area’s rich literary legacy.
Ibrahim’s first foray into the book business was in book distribution. When he first went knocking on the doors of several book retailers, he was certain the never-before-seen titles he carried would sell. At the time, quality English Islamic texts were beginning to be produced in the United States and the United Kingdom but were hard to find in Singapore, and he sought to fill the gap.
“I went over to Kinokuniya, MPH Malaysia and PageOne myself. As I took out the books they all said ‘Yes, this is what we’ve been waiting for.'” Ibrahim graduated from the National University of Ireland with a Medical Science degree in 2000 and went on to start a career as an editor with the Education Publishing Bureau (EPB) and then in SNP and Editions Didier Millet. Concurrently, he started Wardah Books as a small book distribution business, before going on to found the retail bookstore on 15 February 2002.
Noticing how the response to the books he distributed was not as enthusiastic as he had anticipated, however, Ibrahim decided the books would sell better when placed in the right context – in other words, in a store of their own. It was in his initial premises – a shophouse at 709C North Bridge Road – where, painting the walls in darkness (the electricity was still not connected), he sold his first book. A man had gone through his boxes, picking for himself The Book of Assistance, a compendium of ethics by 12th-century scholar Imam al-Haddad. About a year later, Ibrahim was told that the structure of the building was no longer sound, and had to find new premises to set up shop. He moved into his current premises on Bussorah Street, which was originally a carpet gallery, and has remained there since. Now the owner of a thriving business, Ibrahim says the burgeoning popularity of online material has not directly affected sales at his store. His main concern however, lies with the addiction to instant gratification that the internet has engendered. An itch in the middle of the night to buy a new book can be satisfied quickly, with only major online sellers like Amazon or Book Depository having a collection extensive enough to satisfy one’s every need and taste – from the most sacred text to the most profane pulp fiction. I raised, however, the fact that Wardah hosts an online webstore, and even delivers their books to customers for a small fee. Surely this follows the pattern of online shops Ibrahim rails against? “I recognise the trend,” he counters, “and I’d be a fool to ignore it.” Despite this pragmatic concession, he maintains that the store’s online catalogue does not boast his full collection. “Currently I reveal only about 80 titles on the online store. It’s a way of saying, ‘look, we only have this much here, but if you want more you need to come to the shop.’”
In another, more insidious way, this fixation with online platforms has led to the decline of reading. “Books now have to compete with inferior media like listicles, videos and social media. This really dumbs down discourse. There’s no longer such a thing as the considered argument or simply even nuance. In a book, the life of an argument is played out in chapter after chapter. There’s so much to build up the argument, so much to pick apart, and this doesn’t happen in new media, where you have to instantly decide whether you agree or disagree,” he posits. In his eyes, watered-down content that proliferate weed-like across cyberspace has forced us to see things in either black or white, and develop an intolerance for the grey shades in between. Listening is passé. Instant condemnation is in vogue. This brought to my mind the pseudo-intellectual comments-section debates, where self-styled pundits cross swords armed only with narrow perspectives, impatience and intemperate language.
Indeed, Ibrahim’s defense of books derives not from a pretentious creed eschewing on-screen material in favour of the more organic experience of reading a book. Far from being a sentimental hipster or a Luddite, he expresses genuine concern over the decline of civilised dialogue: “When you sit down with a book, you are hearing someone else’s point of view. The person is making his argument, an idea that you may not initially be aware of or disagree with.” Leaning in, he continues, “but you let the guy finish. You are waiting patiently, sitting down, not moving, and flitting your eyes from page to page following the logical sequence. If everyone does that, it becomes a civilisational activity. You learn to hear an argument all the way through while withholding your judgement. This is a trait that literate societies have – this tolerance and acceptance of ideas and points of view. This will be lost if we forsake books.”
Here is where the bookstore comes in to fill the void, as a physical space where people may encounter books and, seeing all the unfamiliar material, may be pleasantly surprised by how much they may not have known. Ibrahim cites Mark Forsyth’s The Unknown Unknown: Bookstores and the Delight of Not Getting What You Wanted, “A bookshop is a place where you can discover the things you don’t know you don’t know.” Here is a space gently compelling the visitor to step out of their breakneck-pace lives to contemplate the profound. As our friend the bookseller waxes, “The role of the bookstore is to slow you down. It forces you to go into discovery mode. Books are aspirational in a sense because when you look at something and go ‘gosh, I want that knowledge’ or ‘I want to understand that guy’s argument’, it makes you aspire to be more than what you are. You’re more receptive and open. When you go online, you don’t have that receptivity or openness because you’re likelier than not to be predatorial. For example when you go hunting for books on Amazon – it’s seeking and destroying; you’re just going in and going out. But not so in the bookstore – it forces you to browse for one or two hours of your day and sometimes you leave without a book and that’s fine. The book has already had an effect on you.”
Before setting up his business, Ibrahim spoke to established Malay booksellers in Singapore, such as Toko Haji Hashim, Pustaka Hafidz and Muslimedia. Most of them cautioned him against opening a bookstore. It was at a point in time when people were seeing it as ‘a sunset industry’. Needless to say, he did not see it that way and opened his store anyway. One of the first things he did was to furnish his shop with a sofa. Why? He envisioned his store to be like a parlour, where his patrons may comfortably sit and discuss books. “This is all part of the experience; talking to other customers, exchanging views with the bookseller – you can’t get this online.”
Insisting that nothing bridges time and space better than books, he explains, “books are the only technology able to connect you with Al-Ghāzāli, who lived a thousand years ago – instantly his voice is in your head. Youtube can’t do that.” Being a store that specialises in mainly Sufi literature, it is only natural that Ibrahim raises the detrimental effect social media has had on Muslim society. ‘Wardah’, the store’s name, is Arabic for ‘rose’ – a profoundly symbolic image widely employed in Persian Sufi poetry. It is a far cry from the portrayal of God insisted on by puritanical Muslim militants, who enforce their image of God as a wrathful and jealous power. In a world where fundamentalists spread their propaganda through online sermons, it is no wonder that Ibrahim longs for a return to the tradition of debate, dissent and tolerance for diverse opinion. In what is termed the ‘Islamic Golden Age’, Muslim scholars gathered the finest works of knowledge extant in the known world and translated them into Arabic – in essence, imbibing the teachings of all the cultures that existed before them (Demichelis, 2014). Armed with this repository, the great Muslim scholars wrote their own books expounding their own theological and philosophical views.
“The Muslim world has been the most literate civilisation history has ever known. In other societies, especially in the past, only the cream of the crop is literate and engaged with books; not so with the Muslims where every strata is in some way connected with books, if not the book – the Qur’an. So they have to be literate. Even people going to the pondok and pesantren (Islamic boarding schools) have their kitab. So that is the core of Islamic civilisation – books. You can see it going pear-shaped now, with people taking their religion from Youtube. That is not the space where Islamic civilisation is developed.”
At this juncture, I suggested the potential benefits of celebrity dā‘īs (preachers) like Nouman Ali Khan or Mufti Ismail Menk bringing Islamic knowledge to the majority who are currently digital natives. Surely one must adapt to the changing circumstances, and this is a positive sign showing how Islam’s approach to its adherents is up-to-date with modern technological advancements. Ibrahim didn’t budge. Loyal as ever to his cause, he iterated with a chuckle, “But you cannot tell me that the great debate between Ibn Sina and Al-Ghāzāli could ever take place in the Youtube generation – it’s impossible! The medium does not allow that; the medium of video, of social media is one of entertainment, and the medium dictates the discourse.” In his eyes, the monumental limitations of online media cripple the potential for intellectual discourse in our present century to achieve for humanity a higher state of understanding.
Yet besides just making people realise the benefits of book-reading, Ibrahim believes bookstores need also to be firmly embedded in their communities. It has to understand the psyche of the people, knowing what they can or cannot take and serve their needs accordingly. Its role providing an essential service thereby becomes more meaningful. For instance, “some people pick up their first book on Rumi, and you suggest they perhaps go for a different, perhaps introductory, work. And if the only thing they’ve heard about Rumi is that he’s some love poet, I tell them to read something that talks about his life and how he revolutionised Sufism. So we curate it to a certain level.” Helping readers understand their titles is all part of the job. Unfortunately, the work of American popular translations in re-imagining Rumi as a new-age poet has created the false impression amongst many that he wrote about romantic human relationships. This can easily be mistaken for the truth if one is unacquainted with his practice of addressing God in what we read as romantic terms. “Rumi is not talking about your ex,” he jokes.
Clearly, the personal touch is not standard practice among Singapore’s major bookshops: “The first time people come here, they get surprised when we come up to speak to them. They think you’re just a cashier, but booksellers are more than that.” On the subject of communication, I wondered if Ibrahim intended Wardah to be a bridge between the secular public sphere and Islamic thought, or as a platform to stimulate interfaith dialogue. It’s an instinctive notion when the shelves are stocked with titles like Covenants of the Prophet Muhammad with the Christians of the World and Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an. He insists he has no such ambition and reiterated the fact that his objective is simply to get people to read. “Of course you do have those with an agenda, like leftist bookshops in other countries. I don’t see myself as setting an agenda, wanting society to be like this or that.” Although he doesn’t believe the bookstore per se is able to radically effect positive change on a massive scale, he is glad that he is helping to break common misunderstandings. “A Chinese couple once came in and said ‘Wow the Muslims have so many books!’ And I’m fine with that – we are changing people’s perceptions. The fact that we have a bookstore, with English books that Muslims themselves patronise, is itself an indication to others that we’re not all crazy jihadists.”
Indeed, the sheer breadth of subjects dealt with in the 3,000-odd titles in Wardah’s collection does reflect the rich variety of the Islamic experience. Yet surely, as a local bookstore, should it not express the aspirations and experiences contained in Singaporean literature as well? Indeed, one has no problems finding the works of Alfian Sa’at or Jihat Rehana Begum displayed prominently beside those of Ibn Arabi. Ibrahim believes in the cause of local literature, and has tried to advance it by setting up a magazine, arguing that the way to nurture writers is through regular journals. “The axis of literacy means reading on one end but also writing on the other – there must be input on both sides. We need to build up a core base of writers – to work on any subject in long-form journalism, which is virtually absent in Singapore. If you read articles in The Guardian or The New Yorker, you can find lengthy pieces on anything,” he laments.
“Especially for the Malay-Muslim community, where there are so many stories to be told, all this is not done. In the thirties and forties Malay journalism exploded, and there were writings covering politics, current affairs. There were racy novels, even,” he adds, referring to the lively Malay literary scene of the time. Singapore’s Malay literati enthusiastically took to the press, raising crucial questions on the place of the community within society. This flurry of activity coincided with the Great Depression and increasing political demands by the Indian and Chinese communities, which highlighted the Malays’ relative vulnerability. Readers in turn contributed their voice through opinion columns and commentaries, making the newspaper a truly public space for open discussion (Emmanuel, 2010). Furthermore, besides the realm of current affairs, Malay literary production was not short on the kind of ‘racy’ novels Ibrahim mentioned, such as Faridah Hanum, a prose work by Syeikh al-Hadi published in 1925. Written in the tradition of French ‘high-bourgeois’ writers like Anatole France and Gustave Flaubert, it broke conventions by introducing graphic portrayals of physical passion, a theme previously untouched by Malay literature (Campbell, 2009).
Today, the Malay’s reading diet of his own language is limited to a single state-controlled newspaper and mass-market fiction flooding the shelves from Malaysia.
Ibrahim compares his observations on the decline of Malay literary activity to an exchange he witnessed overseas. “I spent a lot of time in Ireland. A man was asked by a British interviewer, ‘What now? The Celtic economic tiger is dead.’ And he replied, ‘This is the best time for Ireland – it was always in our darkest hours, that we’re at our most productive artistically. It’s when we had Joyce, Beckett and Wilde.’” It is not difficult to parallel the situations, with Malays in Singapore being consistently cited as the most disadvantaged group in terms of socio-economic status (AMP, 2010; Sim, 2015; Suratman, 2004). It then occurred to everyone in the room that unlike the Irish, the present-day Malays of Singapore have not experienced a flourishing of the arts and letters despite their condition. According to Ibrahim, “I think it’s the all-pervasive state media which has made us allow other people to tell our stories for us. That is very dangerous. When others tell our stories, the stories cannot be true.”
Wardah, then, is many things – even if it does not mean to be; a window looking into the contemporary Malay-Muslim condition, an instrument of public enlightenment and a space to encourage discourse. Yet at its heart, it is loyal to its founding spirit. Like the rose which inspired its name, Wardah is a delicate bloom offered generously to those who wish to receive it, to the tired soul battered by the modern world’s sensory overload. Read a book, it calls – recover the broken promise of an Information Age where all is senseless information without the diffusion of meaningful knowledge. Wardah Books is located at 58 Bussorah Street and is open from 10AM daily. It closes at 9PM from Mondays to Saturdays, but closes at 6PM on Sundays.
Faris Joraimi is currently an undergraduate and heritage enthusiast. When not reading up on classical Malay literature, he is often found writing long, impassioned captions to articles he shares on Facebook.
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