September 13, 2012

Cops trashing books: not just for the NYPD anymore


Last Friday morning in the Al-Nabi Daniel bookstalls of Alexandria, security forces — reportedly sent by newly elected governor Mohamed Atta Abbas — destroyed sixteen of the market’s forty-eight stalls. Immediate reactions were conflicted, with blame falling on a resurgence of Islamist governance — though many of the books sold in such stalls were religious in nature — on an effort to clean up unlicensed vendors — though some of the stalls destroyed may in fact have been licensed — and in some cases even on the leadership of President Morsi himself. Reactions, however, seem to be uniform in calling the market a cultural touchstone, and its destruction a crime that speaks to more than civic zoning disputes.

Egypt Independent reports that the city’s chief of police has visited the site, apologizing for the raid. Moreover, the city has offered to compensate owners of the destroyed stalls, even going so far as to propose a full makeover of the market, with uniform stalls, colorful paint, a large banner and, presumably, less overflow into the street itself. There is no news as to whether the police chief spoke to the blinding painful irony of trashing books in Alexandria of all cities.

Above all, reports from Alexandria — about the unexpected onset of thuggery, the almost visceral pathos of photos from the destroyed stalls, the attempts at velvet-gloved control through sanitization — are immediately reminiscent of scenes from the destruction of our own beloved People’s Library in Zuccotti Park last fall. The only difference is that occupying librarians have yet to receive an apology. The lawsuit over that raid is still ongoing though, interestingly, Gothamist reports that the city has now named Brookfield Properties, owner of Zuccotti Park, as a co-defendant. Norm Siegel, attorney for the librarians, predicts that city attorneys will likely seek to keep documents and depositions related to the raid protected by a confidentiality agreement, meaning that we may see more details about the process behind the raid in Alexandria than we ever will about the violent destruction in Zuccotti last fall.

In my own mind the strange parallels speak to something bigger here than any one overexcited truckload of men ready to take revenge on every teacher they ever disappointed. Whether or not any one bureaucrat can be blamed is almost beside the point. It is as if something about the nature of a security state demands this very specific kind of violence against literature, not as a warning of some worse violence on the horizon (let us maintain Godwin’s Law here) but more like an involuntary action of the state; call it a clearing of the throat or a sneeze.

Yes, individuals should be held responsible, but unless lasting structural changes are made it won’t be enough to keep us clear of the spray.


Dustin Kurtz is the marketing manager of Melville House, and a former bookseller.