Saudi writer Abdo Khal’s novel, Tarmi Bi-sharrar (Throwing Sparks), is about the torture and depravity underlying one man’s attempt to create a literal Paradise on earth. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2010 — called “the Arabic Booker” — and was subsequently translated into English. Around December 25, 2015, I decided to give a surprise gift of the Arabic version of the novel (not the translation) to a writer friend in New York.
This is the story of the impossible journey I have been on since then, one that hasn’t just ruined the surprise, but also tells us something about the nature of distribution of literature in the world, where Western literature can easily traverse East, but the reverse seems impossible.
The idea for the gift came to me last fall when my writer friend was trying to improve her Arabic by reading Arabic novels and asking people how she might get a hold of Naguib Mahfouz’s Arabic novels in Manhattan. I thought that giving her a surprise copy of Abdo Khal’s book would be a great gift idea and set myself to the task of procuring a copy.
The first thing I did was to check out online bookstores carrying Arabic books. Long story short, most online stores that carry Arabic books really only carry The Quran and Hadith and assorted theological stuff. There is very little there in terms of anything else. When I typed “Abdo Khal” in the search bar of one of the stores marketing itself as a major source of Arabic books, the search gave me the names of Ibn Khaldun (a 14th-century dude), of Khalil Gibran (mid-20th-century dude), and Amr Khaled, lots and lots of Amr Khaled (a major televangelist dude in the Middle East).
I immediately lost all faith in these online bookstores and decided to go straight to Abdo Khal’s publisher, a reputable press called al-Jamal Publications, Beirut/Baghdad. When I searched for the press, however, I couldn’t seem to find a web presence, ending up instead with al-Jamal sanitary ware; al-Jamal jewelry; also a guy named Khalil al-Jamal.
This dead end wasn’t as bad as it sounds. Because of the spelling of al-Jamal, I discovered a promising online bookstore with a similar name, which is described in the press as “Arab Amazon Built on Cash-on-Delivery.” In fact, the website is a plucky little start-up founded by a determined under-30 entrepreneur who has been featured in Forbes for creating a library of 10 million books and his willingness to ship censored books all over the world. “We keep facing trouble because of what we do,” he told Forbes. “But I feel happy when I get people to read or get books.”
“This is who I want to give my money to,” I thought, and quickly found the Arabic version of Abdo Khal’s novel on the Arab Amazon. Not only that, but I bookmarked the website to come back for future book purchases. I considered my future patronage similar to when we decide to buy from independent bookstores. It made me feel good. On the side of the little guy and all that.
Except the Arab Amazon couldn’t process my order. My order kept getting stuck on the payment page due to some kind of postal code error.
I describe the problem below via my Facebook conversation with the website. The ordering problem strikes me as precisely the sort of problem confronted by start-ups, especially start-ups that are trying to process monies from across the world. It is the kind of problem that makes me feel bad for the sheer magnitude of the minutiae that the website’s founder is trying to overcome.
December 25, 2015, 4:18pm — Ali Eteraz:
Hi, I am trying to order Abdo Khal’s book from the United States. Every time I get to checkout it says, “PayPal gateway has rejected request. A match of the Shipping Address City, State, and Postal Code failed (#10736: Shipping Address Invalid City State Postal Code).” I am not sure what that means since the checkout page does not have a place to enter the US Postal Code (Zip Code). Please help.
December 26, 2015 5:05am — Customer Service:
Hello Mr. Ali, We apologize for this inconvenience, we will check the issue with the meant department and will contact you back so please stay tuned. Thank You For Contacting Us.
December 27, 2015 2:33pm — Ali Eteraz:
Thank you. Let me know when I can order.
January 2, 2016, 3:23pm — Ali Eteraz:
I still cannot order. I keep getting the following error. “PayPal gateway has rejected request. A match of the Shipping Address City, State, and Postal Code failed (#10736: Shipping Address Invalid City State Postal Code).” This is strange as there is no place to actually enter the Postal Code. I need to order the Arabic version of Tarmi Bi Sharrar by Abdo Khal. This is urgent. Please assist.
January 2, 2016 3:33pm — Ali Eteraz:
PLEASE IGNORE THE ABOVE. I FOUND THE BOOK ON AMAZON.
That’s right. Because I could not get a simple order processed, I abandoned the Arab Amazon and went to the original Amazon. For a brief moment I even thanked the stars for Amazon’s hegemony (I promise it is the only time I have thanked a hegemon).
Although Amazon proper didn’t have the Arabic novel in its reserves, it could identify that the book was available through its “alternative buying options” route. Excited by the prospect of my journey coming to an end, I went and paid whatever I was charged, including an exorbitantly high shipping rate. Money is no consequence when you are trying to surprise someone, right?
Little did I realize that I had just been “bookjacked.” What is bookjacking? From what I have been able to understand, there are some “sellers” on Amazon and other online portals that don’t own their own stock; rather they simply take legitimate listings from other booksellers from other websites and then sell those books with inflated prices to people like me. I am not sure if Amazon knows about this problem or turns a blind eye.
Regardless — at the time I made my order via Amazon, I knew nothing about bookjacking. In fact, because of my willingness to pay anything, I was a willing mark.
My order got processed on January 2, 2016, and the expected arrival date for the book was set between January 11 and January 29. I waited for the book to get delivered, and for my friend to send me confirmation of its arrival. Because my surprise doubled as a thank you for something she had done for me last year, I kind of avoided talking to her until the book reached her.
January passed: I didn’t hear from her. February passed: I didn’t hear from her. I started to grow concerned. I tracked the book online, but it said that it was still in-transit. By the beginning of March, I couldn’t believe a book could be in transit that long, because I’ve seen full-length novels get edited faster. I assumed that what happened was that the book got delivered but my friend just didn’t see it.
By this point I was very embarrassed because the only way I could find out if the book had been delivered was to ask my friend. In other words, to figure out the mystery of the missing book, I had to ruin the surprise I had set up.
It took me a few days to muster the courage to ask my friend if she had gotten something from me. She immediately became ashamed because she thought she must have missed something and went rummaging through months of her own mail. In fact, her exact words were, “I will be very embarrassed if I got it and did not realize it was from you.” That’s how we are, us book lovers, we always believe we are responsible for the crimes of others.
As my friend searched her archives, I decided to send an email to the bookjacker. Below is my question and their response. Short version: they lost the order and did not bother telling me.
March 4, 2016 — Ali Eteraz:
Can you confirm if this package [from January 2] was delivered? It still says “shipped” in the dashboard.
March 5, 2016 — Bookjacker:
We are sincerely sorry that you haven’t received your package. It seems to have been lost in transit. As the item is currently unavailable in stock, your order will be now fully refunded. Please allow 2–3 business days for processing. If the package eventually arrives, please contact us so we can reverse the refund or make the arrangements to get the package back.
To assure my friend that she was not responsible for misplacing the book, I shared the above conversation with her and offered the sheepish postscript: “I am going to need to reorder [your gift]. This is the least surprising and bureaucratic gift ever.”
All in all, surprise ruined, months wasted, money that may or may not come back, and disappointment all around.
Of course, the irony is that when I reordered the book, I went right back to Amazon’s “alternative buying options” and ordered from another vendor. This time I paid even more.
In other words, I got bookjacked a second time.
As a book lover, I feel compelled to draw a lesson from my struggle — because, at this point, drawing lessons is all I’ve got left. What I see is that I live in a world where you may need to wait half a year, and be extorted, to get a novel that won the “Arabic Booker.” This is disastrous and shameful, because the flow of books in the other direction is so easy and direct.
In my opinion, the fault for this lies with the following parties. In no particular order:
A. The Western publishing regime, which purports to serve the entire world, but gives preference to English over and above all other languages, as if people in the West do not hunger for stories in other languages. The inability to procure books from other languages probably explains why our translation industry is so small.
B. The Middle Eastern and Asian publishing regimes, which have not invested in people like the Arab Amazon guy, either financially or legally, so they can have the resources to make their technology cutting edge.
C. The Middle Eastern and Asian immigrants in the West, who seem to be interested only in religion and do not have functional institutions that serve art, literature, or music from their lands of origin. How many copies of The Quran and Hadith do we need?
D. ISIS and/or Donald Trump.
As for the once-a-surprise book, the expected time of arrival is between March 31 and April 19.
Of this year, I think.