Young people like to stand out from the crowd, showing off their talents or luxury possessions. But one teenage boy had a particularly unusual passion: Collecting old books and magazines. It was a passion that led to him own one of Kuwait’s largest collections of rare books.
Saleh Al-Misbah, who runs the National Heritage Bookshop at Youm Al Bahar (also called the Heritage Village), is no hoarder. Still he is quite familiar with the contents of all his books. The bookshelves in his store reach to the ceiling, with thousands of books crammed in. You often find him in a discussion with customers, looking to find exactly the right book for them.
Back in 1975,Misbah would visit the annual Islamic book fair, hosted by the Social Reform Society, with his high school friends. That year, Kuwait launched the inaugural International Arab Book Fair, an event he still attends to this day. “My interest began to grow after I read an article in Al-Qabas newspaper in 1981 about a young British man who loved to collect the first issue of every magazine. I began my hunt for the first issues of Kuwaiti newspapers and magazines after that. By the way, I have the first issue of Kuwait Times too,” he said.
It was difficult to find the first issues of newspapers in Kuwait and Misbah did not want to get copies from the archives. The struggle he faced at that time, as a student, to find a diversity of information about Kuwait only fuelled his passion. Local libraries and schoolbooks wouldn’t provide in-depth information about the country, unlike books owned by amateur book collectors.
He began to concentrate his effort on everything Kuwait-related, from books, magazines and brochures to manuscripts and collectible antiques. The books are categorized by language and area. “What’s happening at local libraries is awful. Some librarians get rid of old books only because they’re torn, regardless of their value. I had to take action by holding workshops for librarians to teach them how to handle and maintain old books,” Misbah said.
To Misbah, looking for old books is like digging for gold. He looks for bargains online, gets them from government stores, and sometimes even buys entire private libraries from their owners. “It’ a huge responsibility I took upon myself. Kuwait lost a great deal of its literary and cultural heritage during the Iraqi invasion after libraries were plundered,” he explained.
“In 1997, I joined the Institute of Teachers, and then obtained a bachelor’s degree in the Arabic language. I worked for many years as an Arabic teacher,” he told Kuwait Times. Misbah has published documentary books and helped other authors revise their works.He became the secretary-general of the Association of Kuwaiti Writers in 2012, a position he held until 2013. In February, he will hold his first personal exhibition, placing some of his private collection on sale.
The bookshop at the Heritage Village only accounts for a fraction of the books Misbah has acquired. The number totals over a 100,000 at the time of writing, mainly in Arabic and a few thousand in English. So crammed with books is his house that he was forced to store some externally. A few are too valuable to be exhibited at the bookshop, but he will happily invite customers to his house if necessary. The oldest English book in his collection was published in 1780, while his oldest Kuwaiti book, written by Abdulaziz Al-Rasheed, dates back to 1826.
Misbah was honored in Qatar as a pioneer of heritage in the Gulf, and is hoping to win the State Incentive Award. He is the nation’s memory and a man with a mind like a library.