American Woman Saves Saudi Historic Book Co.
Amatullah Bantley has lived in Saudi Arabia for over twenty years. An American convert to Islam, she is defying stereotypes by proving that women can fully engage in public life here. With the support of both men and women in her community, Ms. Bantley saved the city’s oldest English-language Islamic bookstore and publishing house from closing its doors for good.
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American Convert Guides Publishing House to New Levels
In a land where shopping malls sprawl the horizon, a modest bookshop tucked away in a tree-lined neighbourhood of East Jeddah offers a soothing alternative.
From the outside, Dar Abul-Qasim bookstore and publishing house looks like any one of the tiny store fronts that peek out from beneath dusty buildings, stubbornly withstanding the onslaught of super chains. But its history speaks to a past, and to a promising future, of offering readers of all faiths with accessible information about Islam in English, as well as in other languages.
Its owner, an American convert to Islam and mother of two, says she has big plans for the shop she took over just two years ago. Seated on an deep brown couch that contrasts the earthy tones of the store’s walls and bookshelves, Amatullah Bantley enthuses about her vision.
“I’d like to expand it into to being more than just a bookstore; I want it to be a resource centre,” she says, her Saudi-style niqab whisked away from her face, revealing a large smile. “I want to add a wing that has books available for people to just to come in and read, to research; of course, add Internet access. . . just to give people knowledge.”
Bantley’s relationship with the company started in 1989, when a friend asked her to deliver a manuscript to the publisher, a Saudi national named Soliman Gasim. Having opened the business in 1980, Gasim was dedicated to spreading correct information about Islam in English. So when Bantley brought him the manuscript, with some suggestions on how to make it read better, he told her to go ahead and make the changes herself – and to typeset it, as that had already been completed on the original version.
“What was I to do?” reminisces Bantley. She didn’t have a computer, a printer, nor any idea on how to typeset. A friend came to the rescue and found her what she needed – including a computer program that taught her how to prepare text. Gasim appreciated her work and asked her if she’d like to do more – she hasn’t stopped since.
After 16 years of collaboration, it was the bookstore’s founder who finally had to pull out.
In 2005, deteriorating health impelled Gasim to put the store up for sale, but he wasn’t just after the right price, says Bantley. “His vision was for this company to be more than just a business. He always wanted it to be a means of dawa [inviting people to learn about Islam]. He wanted to be sure that whoever he sold it to, would continue with this intention.”
As she watched Gasim turn down offers, Bantley said she couldn’t bear the thought of the company’s demise; she had benefited so much from reading the work they had produced over the years.
“I approached him and told him honestly, I don’t have the money to buy this company but if you can work out some kind of payment plan, I would be more than happy to open the store again. . . he agreed.”
Bantley, who has a degree in business management, now had to find lenders to back her project. “There was no other option but to go into debt for it,” she explains. “From a business sense, people would probably think it was crazy, going on a wing and a prayer, and I just decided it is what I had to do,” she says, the strength of her voice matching the conviction of her words. “It was very risky [but] for me this is Allah’s project, because He Has opened doors that I could never have imagined.”
Through those doors, community supporters of all backgrounds, both men and women, pitched in to help. They offered loans, reduced costs on labour and materials, decorating tips – even the framed photographs of Islamic architecture gracing the walls were donated.
This helped Bantley remake the bookstore into a modern, yet comfortable place where readers can leisurely explore the diverse selection of books lining the shelves. The store sells about one hundred original titles (published by Abulqasim Publications), plus over two hundred others from well-known publishers like Darussalam, International Islamic Publishing House and Dar Al-Khair.
And while about ninety per cent of the books are in English, Bantley points to a a few shelves featuring books in other languages including French, German, Tamil, Tagalog, Sinhala, Malabari, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, Turkish and Urdu. She’s also got thirty translations of the Quran in stock.
All she needs now are more customers.
“Honestly, business is a bit slow,” explains Bantley, who says she’s trying to balance the need to pay back lenders with further investing in the company’s promotion and expansion. “I try to do a little bit of advertising here and there but right now it’s more word of mouth.”
To get people talking, the publishing house hosted a couple of lectures featuring Sheikh Yusuf Estes, the American preacher turned caller-to-Islam in January. And plans are also underway to promote new and seasoned authors through book signings and readings. Bantley hopes these efforts - “baby steps”, as she calls them - will help her fulfill the aim of her work: to produce, provide and distribute top quality Islamic literature to those who want and need it.
Even Arab businessmen could benefit, suggests Bantley. “This is an opportunity for them to get [books] locally and at decent prices and they can offer them to their workers. But they don’t know about us.”
Unless they’re reading this.
-- Freelance journalist Amira Elghawaby
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