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Week of 20 March 2023

Week of 20 March 2023

Top title of the week — Secrets of Divine Love by A. Helwa

There is a new addition to the Wardah Heritage Gallery — that series of photographs you see as you walk up the stairs. It is an image of the cover of a catalogue of books in the holding of Maktabah Al-Tahdir that was located at 58 Bussorah Street — that’s our address now. The catalogue is in the possession of the family of Haji Wan Mohd Shaghir in Malaysia. The artefact is undated, but if I were to guess, I would say that it was probably printed some time between the 1920s and the 1960s. The more interesting question is what exactly was Maktabah Al-Tahdir? Was it a library as the printed English title says or was it actually a bookshop?

I admit that I had never heard of Maktabah al-Tahdir or Al-Tahdir Library, and a search in the National Archives has yielded nothing. Enquiries among friends in heritage circles has been met with surprise and astonishment, but alas, no hard clues. What is confounding is that the noun ‘maktabah’ can mean either library or bookshop. Naturally, I would like to think that Maktabah al-Tahdir was a bookshop rather than a library. I have three reasons to support this.

Firstly, Bussorah Street was a street of booksellers. There was Haji Muhammad Said bin Haji Muhammad Arsyad who operated two bookshops here in the 1870s. Alongside him, in the 1880s, was the bookshop of Haji Muhammad Siraj bin Haji Muhammad Salih Rembang who, as Ian Proudfoot records, listed his books for mail-order in the newspaper he edited, the Jawi Peranakan. Later there would come to be established Maktabah Mar’ie, which continued operating at Bussorah Street well into post-Independence Singapore. There is also more direct evidence that 58 Bussorah Street was a place for the sale of books from the imprint page of the book by Muhammad bin Muhammad Ali Sambas, Kitab Pelayaran Haji, which states that the book could be purchased from ‘Haji Ali Nombor 58 Bussorah Street, Singapura’, although admittedly there is no mention of Maktabah al-Tahdir.

Another point in favour of Maktabah al-Tahdir being a bookshop is the word at the top of the cover page of the catalogue: the Arabic ’fahrasa’. This harkens to Ibn al-Nadim’s 10th-century Kitab Al-Fihrist, a gigantic bibliographic catalogue of all books available across the medieval Islamic world. Over 10,000 books were listed by Ibn al-Nadim, who was a first-rate bibliomaniac as well as being — you guessed it — a bookseller! I am not saying that this fahrasa of Maktabah al-Tahdir is of the scale of Al-Fihrist, but it is just another hint that this may be a bookseller’s catalogue rather than that of a library.

And finally, the word most often used by the Malays to refer to a library is Kutub Khanah. In fact, the words ‘Kutub Khanah Arabiyah’ can still be clearly seen decorating the wall of one of the annexe buildings of the Hajjah Fatimah Mosque compound. It used to be a library.

So Maktabah al-Tahdir must have been a bookshop right? Not so fast. Two things have given me pause.

First, there is the name al-Tahdir. Bookshops in the colonial period were almost always named after the bookseller. Think of Maktabah Mar’ie (named after the Mar’ie family), and think of the stalwart bookseller of Arab Street whose shop is literally just the founder’s name: Haji Hashim bin Haji Abdullah. Al-Tahdir just does not strike me to be a family name.

Secondly, Muslim and/or Malay organisations of the period tended to adopt Arabic names. Think of Jawalol Masakin, the Javanese mutual benefit society, and Darul Ta’lam the gentleman’s sports club. Moreover, ‘tahdir’ means ‘preparation’ in Arabic. And ‘preparation’ does suit a library more than a bookshop. But preparation for what? There must be some long-forgotten nuance that I am not picking up on. Or was this a front for some secret literary society like that in Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore? Bussorah Street’s very own DaVinci Code, perhaps?

In any case, on the balance, I can say with some (unfounded) confidence that Maktabah al-Tahdir was not a library but a bookshop. Until we have more evidence, we can’t really say one way or another.

What we do realise more acutely is that we know so little about the past lives of Kampong Gelam, much less this one building at 58 Bussorah Street. But whether bookshop or library, the fact remains that this building we now occupy seems to have its own destiny in service to the written word, to knowledge, and to the seeking of truth. May we be worthy stewards of this legacy.

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