The Old Man and the Library


I strongly believe that the best way to learn a language is not in classrooms through textbooks, homework, and courses that you can fail. Necessity spoils the learning process, as it ties it to a short-term end, and once the end is reached or no longer relevant, it fades away as it becomes purposeless.  A language is best learnt through use, through daily contact: TV, music, radio, conversations, and most accurately, through BOOKS. As I was trying to apply this to my English, a professor of mine hinted to a bookshop he had heard of, in some small alley near the railway station, downtown Rabat.

I went there and found the place after much effort. An old man was reading, surrounded by thousands of books up until the roof, old and new, resting quietly on their shelves. Qur’an was always on, and rarely a customer would stop by, ask for a book and leave instantly.  The bookshop seemed to spurt out of another century, one where appearances didn’t matter and little did marketing and benefit. I felt like there was a story to be told there…A story whose cue persona was reluctant to tell, as he is a man of discretion and modesty. After much effort, again, and a not so categorical no, I was able to get him to talk.


First, there was the idea : August 1985,  Mr Belhaj, a journalist of profession  in his forties, remarked there was a shortage of English books for the scholars. The only ones to be found were the ones in the meager universities’ libraries, limited in number and in topics. English was just entering the country and it was still pictured as a language to master rather than a culture to explore. It still is, but we’re far away from where we were back then. Mr Belhaj can vouch for that, as he says types of requests and books sold shifted from the exclusivity of beginners’ and literary books to include specialty books now.

Mr Belhaj specialized in Humanities’ books; he was for a long time the reference for universities in Rabat. As A prophet is not without honor save in his own country*, his clients were and still are mostly foreigners, who are in Rabat intermittently and who have heard of him through articles or touristic guides where he is mentioned. These, he says, have often expressed their surprise to find in his shop peculiar books they couldn’t find in their home countries, that are natively English speaking. The worldwide crisis having impacted the tourists’ flow, these have greatly diminished in number lately.


It is though he had gone out of one of the Hollywood fairytale clichés. You just add the prospering 3rd Millenium library a few blocks away, and there you have it: The script of a certain You got mail with Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. Two libraries, two visions, close in distance, so far away in ideology: Books as a business, and books as a passion… A passion, because Mr Belhaj, [quote]* “would rather you didn’t buy a book, but had a pleasant experience while in his shop”, strolling through the wonders of literature and humanities. Thus, with no marketing or advertisement strategy whatsoever, beside some simplistic business cards he rarely dispenses, he relies on you, the visitor, to spread the word, having spent a good time in his shop.

At Mr Belhaj’s, you could find the last Game of Thrones book, as well as Kant’s critique of pure reason. Be it a classic of the classics, or last month’s best seller, his shop suits all tastes. You would probably have to sit through the paper index search of the wanted book, as he uses  no computer or numeric database (the cliché must be whole), but there are great chances you would leave the place satisfied.

Should you be a passionate reader or just curious… Go there, you won’t regret it. If you do, say hi to Mr Belhaj from me, and tell him I published it anyway…


English Book Shop 

Address:  7, AL Yamama Street, Rabat ( Facing VINCI )
Tel & Fax: 05 37 70 65 93

bookshop map

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