Hamzeh AlMaaytah rarely sleeps, but when he does, it’s usually on the mattress hidden behind a screen in the back of his bookshop. Hamzeh, 36, is one of Amman’s most dedicated bookshop owners, and certainly its most eccentric. He tends to leap instead of walk, is prone to poetic pronouncements, and speaks most often in Fusha, the literary form of Arabic, rather than the Jordanian dialect typically used for daily speech. He reveres the written word. In response to text messages or Facebook posts he will send back a picture of his handwritten answer. “There is so much intimacy and knowledge in the handwriting of a friend,” he says, bemoaning that his practice has yet to catch on.
A fourth-generation book owner, Hamzeh describes his work as a calling. “I run an emergency room for the mind,” he explains, while sipping coffee near the entrance of the shop late one morning. He wants to ensure there is always a place in Jordan where one can access the healing power of books, no matter the hour or the price. Hence the mattress in the back. Hamzeh keeps his store open 24/7, a practice he inherited from his father, who moved the family bookstore from Jerusalem to Amman before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. He’ll occasionally get late-night relief from two former employees, a pair of Syrian brothers who fled their native Homs. All of his prices are negotiable, and he has both a generous loan policy and a robust book exchange program, where patrons can swap any book they bring in for one in the store.
The shop, al-Maa Bookstore or Mahall al-Maa in Arabic, is nestled right against the ancient Roman Nymphaeum public water fountain, down the way from the Grand Husseini Mosque and the local Sugar Market, on a street that was once the Amman River. Al-maa means “water” and, like the once-public fountain, Hamzeh wants his books to be as accessible as water. An underground well still bubbles at the entrance.
For the uninitiated, al-Maa looks like any other of the many book kiosks and independent shops that dot nearly every corner of downtown Amman. But for hundreds of students, poets, and book-lovers the world over, al-Maa is a haven, one of the few places on earth where nothing matters more than a love of books.
“Sometimes, I come here in the afternoon and stay for two days,” Hussein Alazaat, a graphic designer with a special interest in Syrian books and children literature, says. “There is nobody like Hamzeh. We can discuss all the issues in the world.”