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Gayyash Al 'Aatifa

Tuesday, March 31, 2009


I had first gotten just the regular raqam eeda'a (standard book number) but then when I asked about the bar code the lady asked if the book was going abroad. I got paranoid and said "maybe, I don't know, it's likely but not certain". I was worried by the prospect of paperwork and delay, censorship drama, who knows. She snatched my copy of the receipt and stuck it with a sheet of carbon paper back into the pad. From the shelf beside her she took down a big old logbook that she opened to a marked page. Its yellow sheets held a great long list of ten-digit numbers. The lady followed the list with her finger and stopped at the first unchecked number. She crossed it with a pencil and penned it onto my receipt.

The lady had wondered aloud while fiddling with the carbon paper what all the fuss was with this ISBN thing anyway. "Some will tell you," she muttered, without looking up, "that it's to protect the authors and then others come and say it makes a book pretty." A man waiting his turn leaned over and whispered to her that ISBNs (as opposed to 'regular' standard book numbers) were for showoffs, mere posturing.

She had also said earlier that all books except for those written for children had to be at least fifty pages long in order to qualify for getting a number. "What about books of poetry?" I asked. "They're usually quite short."
"That's their problem," she said. "These are the rules, like it or not."

I had remembered from a previous visit something about books having to be a certain size. I asked the lady and she said yes, they had to be at least eighteen centimeters by twenty-four centimeters. I pointed across the room to a stack of new-looking books that clearly did not meet those specifications. "Okay," she said, "fine, it's just we don't want people coming in with like really really tiny books, you know. Nothing smaller than the palm of your hand," she said, holding up her outstretched palm like a printer's sample.

"So you're saying, then, that these rules are flexible?" I asked.
"Sort of, yes," she said.
"So you're saying I can bring a book that's, say, forty-nine pages long?"
"Forty-nine pages? Sure," she said, her eyelids drooping cheekily.
"Okay, how about forty pages?"
"No, not a chance," she replied, and with pursed lips she looked down, aligning gently the loose sheets before her with the desk's edge. I asked again, as I had several times, what the logic was behind these rules, and several times she answered, like a wartime statesman, that the logic was that These Were The Rules.


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