Monday, August 27, 2018

2018 Summer Library Series: The Missing Library by Rajia Hassib

Please welcome novelist Rajia Hassib to the 2018 Summer Library Series. In this week's reflection on childhood and the library, Rajia takes us to Egypt and the library she missed by several hundred centuries.


The Missing Library

Rajia Hassib

Rajia Hassib as a child
I grew up with an aching absence: two blocks away from where the great Library of Alexandria once stood. On the car ride to school every day, I would pass by the empty lot of land overlooking the sea and glance at the brick wall surrounding it. Occasionally, the land was used to temporarily house a traveling exhibit or circus, and the poles of large red tents would jut above the wall’s edge. Always, the land seemed to be waiting, patiently tolerating its current occupants while mourning its original use.

Like all avid readers, I, too, mourned the great library that I grew up believing Caesar had burned to ashes in 48 B.C., though I would later learn that the library suffered several devastating fires and that its destruction happened over several centuries: a slow, painful death rather than extinction in one glorious flame. Still, the end result was the same: my home city of Alexandria, Egypt, once housed the greatest library in the world, and now that library was gone.

Even more painful than this knowledge was the absence of any other lending libraries that served a child reader. Alexandria in the 1980s, back when I was discovering the joy of reading, did not boast a single free-standing lending library that I knew of; and its many smaller libraries, located in various cultural centers, including the one where my mother worked, catered mainly to adults. I saw them as musty, foreboding places where ten-year-old me was not allowed. I distinctly remember one day when I accompanied my mother to work and, in the middle of her work day, walked the long corridor of the cultural center and all the way to the double doors opening up to the library. I remember standing at its doors, taking in its rows of shelves laden with books, then turning around and walking away. This was not a place I felt I was welcome.

Rajia as a teenager (age 16)
My school’s library, on the other hand, welcomed me, as did the various book sellers and book stores that I routinely visited during my childhood years. The main bookseller of the bookstore that boasted the largest collection of English novels knew me by name by the time I was a teenager, and even the visiting book fair, setting camp in two locations in Alexandria every February, became such a regular visiting spot that the returning worker smiled and nodded in my direction whenever they saw me come back day after day, year after year.

My love of reading flourished thanks to my parents, who, despite falling solidly in Egypt’s middle class and rarely having money to spare, never once denied me the purchase of a book, and thanks to family friends who learned, early on, that the best gift they could give me was a trip to the bookstore. I had to buy almost every book I read as a child and teenager, and I was—and still am—keenly aware of how privileged I was, how lucky to be able to afford so many books.

Still, I never ceased to wonder what would have happened if that library never burned. The notion of a large, free-standing structure full of books fascinated me, and I longed for such a place with such force that, when Disney’s Beauty and the Beast first came out in 1991 and I watched the Beast open up the library doors and usher Belle in, I cried—a rare reaction coming from the surprisingly rational teenager that I was. Not until I moved to the U.S. in 1998 did I get to experience the pleasure of visiting a public library. The first ever card bearing my name in the U.S. was, in fact, my membership card to the Brooklyn Public Library.

Brooklyn Public Library
Almost two decades after I acquired that card, I took my kids back to Egypt for a visit. In my home city of Alexandria, I showed them the street where I grew up, and, two blocks away, I walked with them into the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria that opened in 2002 and that now stands in that exact location I passed every day going to school, the site of its famed ancestor.

Bibliotheca Alexandrina
The new library occupies a fascinating, disc-shaped structure that symbolizes the rising sun of knowledge and that now houses a vast collection of books in addition to, among other things, museum areas, an internet archive, a library for the visually impaired, and a reading room built on eleven levels that add up to over 200,000 square feet, all illuminated by the circular glass ceiling facing the Mediterranean Sea. The library holds books in Arabic, English, and French, and, fifteen years after its grand opening, is still in the process of expanding its collection, which now boasts over a million books but which is still far below the eight million mark the library was built to hold. But just as the ancient library was destroyed over years, not in a single blazing fire, this new library’s collection is steadily increasing, slowly but surely rising up to the example set by it predecessor.

Inside the Bibliotheca Alexandria, photo by Rajia Hassib
used with permission
Standing with my children in the middle of the vast reading room, I watched the smiles on their faces and, for the first time since my childhood, felt the wound left in my heart by the burning of the ancient library start to heal. I know that the manuscripts lost forever in that fire two thousand years ago will never be replaced, but I do find solace in knowing that my home city of Alexandria, which once was a beacon of knowledge radiating throughout the entire ancient world, now has a grand library again. The lot of land is no longer vacant; it now holds the same kind of structure it held two thousand years ago, the only structure it was meant to hold: a library.


Rajia Hassib,
photograph used with permission
Today's library writer:

Rajia Hassib was born and raised in Egypt and moved to the United States when she was twenty-three. She holds an MA in creative writing from Marshall University, and her writing has appeared in The New Yorker online, The New York Times Book ReviewUpstreetSteam Ticket, and Border Crossing magazines. Her debut novel, In the Language of Miracles, was published by Viking (Penguin) in 2015, and her second novel, Hearts as Light as Feathers, is forthcoming from Viking (August 2019). She lives in West Virginia.

Continue enjoying reflections from the Summer Library Series: