At Munther Fahmi’s small bookshop in East Jerusalem, Martina Quick, political counselor at the Swedish embassy to Israel, peruses a copy of Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh’s autobiography “Once Upon A Country.”
“This is the best bookshop in the country,” says the blond, bespectacled Quick, 39. “It has the most varied selection in English about the region, including fiction, non- fiction, memoirs and travel writing. My boss, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, feels the same way and he really knows bookstores.”
The renown of Fahmi’s shop, located at the American Colony Hotel, has spread to an international clientele far beyond the borders of Jerusalem. Now those patrons are rallying behind its Jerusalem-born owner, who faces possible deportation by Israeli authorities.
A petition has been sent to the Interior Ministry citing the “importance of his bookshop to the literary life of Jerusalem.” It has attracted more than 3,000 signatories: authors, academics and political figures including Amos Oz, Orhan Pamuk, Ian McEwan, Roddy Doyle, Henning Mankell, Nathan Englander, Alain de Botton, John Banville, and two former Israeli ministers, Shlomo Ben-Ami and Efraim Sneh.
Fahmi, 56, was told last year that the ministry would no longer renew the tourist visa that has enabled him to remain in Israel since he returned from a 20-year stay in the U.S.
An appeal was rejected by Israel’s High Court of Justice, which referred the case back to the ministry. “If a request is forwarded for an inter-ministerial discussion on humanitarian grounds, the issue will be examined according to procedures,” the ministry said in an e-mailed statement.
Fahmi’s case isn’t unique, and is a result of the political complexities created by Israel’s annexation of the eastern half of Jerusalem after the 1967 War, a move not recognized internationally.
Israel offered the Palestinian population the choice of either obtaining Israeli citizenship or retaining permanent residency status. The majority of Jerusalem’s 268,000 Arabs have chosen the latter.
Israeli law allows for residency permits to be revoked if the bearer remains outside the country for more than seven years and holds another citizenship.
According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the pace of residency permit revocations for Jerusalem Arabs who meet those criteria has climbed, reaching a record 4,577 in 2008 after just 229 the previous year.
On April 7, ACRI petitioned the High Court to halt the revocation of residence permits and demand that the law “be amended to differentiate between immigrants and those born in annexed areas.”
Fahmi first left his hometown in 1973 to study English literature in Egypt, and emigrated to the U.S. where several members of his family were living. In 1993, inspired by the signing of the Oslo Accords between Israelis and Palestinians, he returned to Jerusalem despite having lost his residency status in the meantime.
He opened a bookshop at the American Colony Hotel, which was founded in the 1880s as a home for Protestant missionaries in the Holy Land. Just over the 1967 dividing line in the city’s eastern Arab half, it has long served as a neutral meeting ground for Palestinian, Israeli and international officials, and is a favorite of visiting journalists and celebrities.
Fahmi’s bookshop offers hard-to-find tomes on Middle East politics, culture and travel, helping to promote the work of Palestinian and Israeli authors.
This month, the shop hosted an event “Zoom In: Palestinian Refugees of 1948, Remembrances,” in which Israeli and Palestinian scholars examine contemporary reactions to archival photographs. It is the only store in the country offering the book for sale.
“Munther’s bookshop contributes much to that special atmosphere at the American Colony as a meeting point for the Jews and Arabs of Jerusalem,” says Menachem Klein, an author of “Zoom In” and political science professor at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv. “I hope the committee that decides his case takes this into account; Jerusalem needs more people like Munther.”
“I don’t have any regrets at all,” Fahmi says. “I was born here, I belong here, and I enjoy immensely what I do, being around books and authors; there’s no way to describe the joy I feel doing what I do for a living as a bookseller.”
(Calev Ben-David writes for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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