Cruising through Jordan with 'Nancy', the vintage Mercedes covered in books
AMMAN - A 1974 Mercedes, wrapped in a blanket of books, stands still on Rainbow Street - one of the oldest and busiest streets in central Amman.
Curious pedestrians stop to take a look at the rare model and do not hesitate to flick through the pages of books that catch their eye.
“It’s like a mosaic of books,” says 28-year-old Gaith Bahdousheh, the owner of the car he nicknamed "Nancy". Sitting in front of one of Amman’s famous ice-cream shops, the white Mercedes displays books in many different languages and genres.
Arabic, English and French books are spread from the car bumper to the trunk lid and sell on average for four Jordanian dinars ($5.60) each. The price is higher for rare books and old editions displayed on the car roof. Those are sold for up to 100 dinars ($140).
One man picks up an Arabic translation of a historical murder mystery by Italian author Umberto Eco from the car’s nose panel. Another one flips through the pages of an Arabic history book that he found on the windshield.
Bahdousheh started selling books on the road in February 2016. “First I had tables,” he tells MEE, but after realising he was occupying too much space on the crowded street, he decided to display the books on his car.
“It was like magic. It attracted a lot of people and got them more interested in the books I had for sale.”
Bahdousheh usually parks his car on Rainbow Street and in central Amman's Paris Circle in the Jabal al-Weibdeh district; but he also sells books on the roads of his hometown, Madaba, located around 40 kilometres south-west of Amman. He hopes to be able to drive to more remote areas in Jordan, including refugee camps, to spread his love of reading.
I was a risk manager working for a big company. I had a good salary, insurance, a lot of benefits. I had a comfortable life but I wasn’t happy
- Gaith Bahdousheh
At the end of 2015, Bahdousheh decided to quit his corporate job and devote himself to his passion for books.
“I was a risk manager working for a big company. I had a good salary, insurance, a lot of benefits. I had a comfortable life but I wasn’t happy,” he explains. Feeling caged in the business world of suits and ties, he left his job and dove into the bookselling trade.
Bahdousheh worked in one of Amman’s oldest bookshops, Mahall al-Maa. He learned how to run the bookshop with the owner, Hamzeh al-Maaytah, a fourth-generation bookseller.
After spending several months between thousands of books and manuscripts, sometimes overnight, he became determined to start his own project in his hometown of Madaba.
“I love books so much I thought about opening a bookshop in my hometown because there were none there,” says Bahdousheh. “Why travel 40 kilometres just to buy books? Many people in Madaba cannot do this,” he explains.
In the age of the internet, 'promoting reading habits is hard'
- Gaith Bahdousheh
Armed with his book collection and "Nancy", Bahdousheh started his initiative "Books on the Road" in 2016. He began driving to Amman's centre, selling books at low prices.
“I had no money at the time, so selling books on the road was a way to finance my dream of opening a bookshop in Madaba,” he says.
In Jordan, “people don’t read much anymore,” says Bahdousheh. To tackle this problem, he started a book club in his city and organised book fairs in villages around Madaba, in a bid to foster reading habits across the country.
In December 2016, after spending several months selling books on the road every day, and with the support of many donors, including friends, family and strangers, Bahdousheh raised enough money to open the Kawon bookstore in a renovated 19th-century house in Madaba’s city centre, which he runs during the week. But Bahdousheh's weekends are still reserved for selling books on the road between Madaba and Amman.
Famous for its Byzantine mosaics, Madaba has one of Jordan’s largest Christian communities and its people are proud of its long tradition of religious tolerance. In the bookshop, the call to prayer from nearby mosques can be heard along with the bells of historical churches.
Why travel 40 kilometres just to buy books? Many people in Madaba cannot do this
- Gaith Bahdousheh
“Sometimes the bookshop is just a space where people can come and talk,” he says.
While talking about the mission to promote literacy and community involvement in his bookshop, Bahdousheh is interrupted several times by visitors who come to ask for reading suggestions, or by those who just stop by to say hello and ask if the book they ordered has arrived.
In Kawon, which means "universe" in Arabic, a young woman wearing a hijab flips through the pages of an English historical novel, while a couple of tourists from Belgium drop in to ask if there are any Jordanian books translated into French. With books in more than 15 different languages, Kawon was envisioned as a place for cultural exchange and participation.
Bahdousheh has recently become involved in art initiatives and has worked with local artists to transform the city through street art.
I had no money at the time, so selling books on the road was a way to finance my dream of opening a bookshop in Madaba
- Gaith Bahdousheh
In March of this year, he invited local artist Nada al-Qarra to paint several murals on the walls of Madaba’s city centre to commemorate Women’s Day and promote gender equality.
In order to have more space for cultural activities and to promote local artists, Bahdousheh recently started working on a new project in Madaba.
“This year I found a new location for [another] bookshop and started renovating it.” The spacious, new location, which is closer to the city centre, will include a cafe, a small restaurant and a garden, and is expected to open by next month. The original bookshop will still be used to organise music workshops and other cultural activities.
Despite the financial struggles involved in maintaining a social enterprise, the biggest challenge that Bahdousheh encounters is encouraging people to read. In the age of the internet, “promoting reading habits is hard” he admits. The high cost of living in Jordan makes books less accessible, and digital culture contributes to making them less appealing.
“My main goal is to get the community involved. This kind of project opens people up, exposes them to new ideas, and helps them improve their language skills."