TRIPOLI, Libya: Flicking through an old book about Libyan history, a 31-year-old history masters student points to a picture of Tripoli’s main square in the 1920s.
He never imagined he could buy such a book under Moammar Gadhafi.
“This is where we are standing now, Martyrs Square,” said Ashraf Hussein. “Back [in Libya’s Italian colonial days] it was called Piazza Roma. Such books were forbidden before because they told the true history of Libya – Gadhafi did not want that. I bought many such books today.”
Hussein was one of the hundreds of Libyans who descended on the capital’s Martyrs Square this week to browse through thousands of books at Tripoli’s first major second-hand book sale after the 2011 war that ousted Gadhafi.
Accompanied by traditional music performed live, the crowd huddled around tables, perusing and buying novels and books about history, philosophy, geography, poetry, cooking and martial arts.
Organizers of the three-day fair, the funds of which will be used to build a mobile library to visit schools, said Western books – namely the “Harry Potter” collection – sold out first on the first day.
After a busy first day, they had to cancel the fair’s morning session to make sure there were enough books in the busier evening hours.
“The number of visitors exceeded expectations and there were less and less books,” said Rami al-Shaheibi, 25, who donated some books. “Now we know Libyans are eager for these books. Next time, we will try to provide more, especially English novels and those from other Western cultures.”
Under Gadhafi, Western books covering certain periods were banned. Libyans say those depicting heroes of the resistance movement against Italian colonialism and independence were not given the attention they deserved.
Books about King Idris, who Gadhafi ousted in his 1969 coup, were also not available, and any mention of him was usually negative. Instead Gadhafi’s Green Book of political ramblings was everywhere.
“There is such a great variety of topics here,” said state employee Salem Ayayd. “Many of the topics were off limits before because they were against the regime’s ideologies. Only later you could find such things on the Internet but that was not accessible to all.”
Some 60 volunteers from civil society organizations such as Al-Tanweer (Enlightenment) Movement, which focuses on culture, organized the fair by putting up posters in neighborhoods and messages on Facebook. They managed to collect some 7,000 books.
“This isn’t about making money or doing business,” said Nizar Abudayna, organizer of the book fair. “We want to encourage reading, open people’s minds through books.”
Some visitors beamed as they bought many books for less than 20 Libyan dinars ($15). “There is a saying: ‘When you buy books, you buy happiness,’” said sale organizer Suleiman Mansour. “Right now, my happiness is indescribable as I look at all the people buying books.”
Among the books on sale were some publications by authors affiliated with the former regime, which irritated some visitors. “Some people may be annoyed but every book should be given a chance to be put on display,” Abudayna said. “We don’t want to limit people’s minds again.”