Visitors throng the Sharjah International Book Fair 2023. Photos: Kamal Kassim/Gulf Today
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Alex Warren is the owner of Zerzura Rare Books, and though the sole occupant of his corner at SIBF, he is conducting operations splendidly. The reason for his solitariness is because Zerzura is practically a start-up, only a year old, and Warren so far is leading just a team of two part-time staffers. A purebred Englishman, it is his sheer love for the Middle East and his passion for books, particularly of the old and rare kind, which pushed him to set up shop in Dubai. Zerzura specialises in providing first editions of books for clients. But among other things, why Zerzura?
Zerzura, as Warren’s considerable knowledge of the Middle East revealed to him, was perhaps a mythical oasis rumoured to have existed deep in the desert, west of the Nile River in Egypt or Libya. The first European reference to Zerzura is in an 1835 account by the English Egyptologist John Gardner Wilkinson, based on a report by an Arab who said he had found the oasis while searching for a lost camel. More recently, European explorers made forays into the desert in search of Zerzura, but never succeeded in finding it. According to the historical writings from the scribes of an emir in Benghazi, Libya, in 1481, a camel driver named Hamid Keila came to Benghazi in bad shape and recounted to the emir that he had been to the city of Zerzura. Apparently Keila and his caravan had been caught in a vicious sandstorm that killed everyone except him, who apparently survived under the shelter of his dead camel.
A group of strange men found him. They were said to be tall with fair hair and blue eyes, carrying straight swords instead of Arab scimitars, who took the camel driver back to a city called Zerzura, to tend to him. It is speculated that the men with fair hair and blue eyes may have been the remnants of early European crusaders who got lost in the Sahara on their way to or back from Jerusalem and set up their own habitat in the desert.
But back to the present, the 42nd SIBF and the Zerzura oasis where books crusader Warren holds fort. “I wanted to do something tangible, not something that was digital,” he said about his love for rare books. Also, his academic backdrop – he studied history and English literature, and spent four important years in Cambridge – made it a “natural background” for his business. “In today’s world,” Warren said, “people appreciate old, rare books they like to touch and feel. The first editions make them even more valuable.” He noted that the rare books business is a common practice in the West, in countries such as the UK or the USA. “This did not exist in the UAE and I thought I would give it a shot,” he said.
Alex Warren makes his debut at the SIBF.
He points out that the Emirates has a rich and diverse population with residents hailing from many countries. “I think that quite a few of them would be interested in the rare books market,” he said. But for all the positivity he radiates, the business has been a learning process for him. “I am still figuring out tastes and budgets,” he acknowledged. He has brought fifty titles to SIBF, including a set of an 1894 edition of Arabian Nights (“sourced from Yorkshire, would you believe it”!), first editions of Agatha Christie and also a first edition of The Alchemist, the novel by Brazilian author Paulo Coelho. First editions of Harry Potter and a volume of Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands published in 1959, also grace the shelves.
“A lot of people buy books as personal or business gifts,” Warren said, “and the gift becomes even more meaningful if it is a first edition signed by a favourite author.” He said his clients would be those who collect on special topics or look for unusual books. “Most people in the UAE are not original citizens. There are people here who are nostalgic about the countries they come from. They buy books which remind them of memories of home and their childhood, when they first read a specific book.”
Rare books also make for striking showcase displays and are also good investment, though their value might not double overnight. Besides, it is a first edition or nothing, since one cannot make new first editions! “Things can take unexpected turns,” Warren said. “For example, an author can become famous and then the first editions of his books jump in value.” His personal favourites among the oldies are Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the 1964 children’s novel by British author Roald Dahl featuring the adventures of young Charlie Bucket inside the chocolate factory of eccentric chocolatier Willy Wonka and The Lord of the Rings, the epic high-fantasy novel by English author and scholar J. R. R. Tolkien.
“I have good relations with book sellers in the UK,” Warren said. “I sometimes buy my books from them.” He has taken part in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair earlier, though it is his first time in SIBF. “I find this book fair draws lots of people. It is obviously very well-known and it was important to give it a try.”
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