Just over three years ago, carrying as many books as he could bring, he sought refuge in war-torn South Sudan following the persecution that he says he experienced as a Christian, across the border in Sudan’s Nuba mountains.
The books were gathered along the way in Sudan and South Sudan. Most are second-hand copies from libraries in South Sudan and donations from abroad. He wasn’t a bookseller in his home country; he worked with his local church.
Unfortunately, Ali’s arrival in the world’s youngest country coincided with theoutbreak of civil war two years after South Sudan gained its independence from Sudan. Ali joined the tens of thousands of displaced people living in a UN-administered protection of civilians camp near the city of Malakal.
He’s anything but bitter, however. He sells the books at the camp for very small amounts of money, and is fiercely proud of his role as the bookseller of Malakal. His little shop stands as a source of education and distraction from the often unbearable conditions the camp’s residents live with on a daily basis.
“People are usually not reading for fun any more because times are very tough, but there are still favourites. They come here and they like it,” says the 34-year-old.
Among the most sought-after titles by the more than 33,000 residents of the camp are the Bible and the Oxford English Dictionary, although collections of love poems also find takers. “Whenever there is conflict or war, people are reading books about politics and religion. When there is peace, there is also more love,” says Ali, whose shop is down one of the dusty lanes inside the sprawling camp.
The countryside nearby has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the civil war, which has divided the country largely along ethnic lines and pitted forces loyal to the president, Salva Kiir, against those of his former vice-president, Riek Machar.
Stamps and signatures on the books’ dust jackets bear testimony to their varied origins. A copy of Macbeth from Boston public library sits underneath a pile from Upper Nile library, while others carry the names of one-time American or European owners. One corner of his bookshop is home to a small selection of the works of the Australian comedy writer and novelist Kathy Lette, another to medical textbooks on cancer and copies of The Montessori Method and the 1998 report on The State of the World’s Children.
Like many of his customers in a country where, according to Unicef, the adult literacy rate stands at 27%, and 70% of children aged 6-17 have never set foot in a classroom, Ali counts the dictionary as his favourite book – primarily because of his desire to educate himself.
Some day, he says, he wants to leave the camp, adding: “Europe is a place I think about, but how to get there? It’s locked up and is closed off to us. I want to be positive and I hope for peace here some day. The problem is how to bring people together after so much has happened.”