The Booksellers on the Street

Mohammed Selman is a journalist and freelance writer, presently working for BBC Amharic. He was previously an editor at Littmann Books, one of the leading publishing houses in Ethiopia. In “The Booksellers on the Street,” his readers can glimpse how authors, publishers and street vendors warily united to deliver books in Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. There, under continuous government fire, the explosive power of books kept freedom of expression alive for readers. 

May 3 2019 Text: Mohammed Selman Translation from Amharic: Bethel Eshetu

One morning, during yet another state of emergency in Ethiopia when the ruling EPRDF’s mood was off and police were likely to arrest just about anyone, I entered the bookstore where I worked in Addis Ababa and froze, shocked. Federal police with heavy weapons were stripping books from shelves. 

Certain they’d come to arrest me, I whispered to our cashier: “Is it over for us?” But she smiled, describing how the shop owners won a bid to stock a Federal Police center library, and the police had arrived to gather the books – not to arrest the authors or editor (me). 

Yet books would still leave in carton boxes, trussed much like so-called “anti-peace” activists rounded up by Agazi special force. In one unsealed box, I spotted Ya-Meles Amliko (Worshipping Meles) by Temesgen Desalegn who unapologetically criticized Ethiopia’s decade-old press-phobic regime. No way would police actually buy this, no way. Or did a revolution erupt during my work break?

Recovering, I struck up a conversation with a Federal, allowing how “people are scared of you for no reason.” When he showed that fake police smile, I countered: “I’m surprised you bought this book.” With another smile, civil enough that he clearly did not understand my meaning, I advanced: “Did the title confuse you? The author himself is in Zeway” – a dreaded prison far from the capital and far from inmates’ families. 

Now it was the Federal’s turn for shock, with voltage from Renaissance Dam ricocheting off him. In calls likely to police headquarters, his boss handled the phone like a pistol. Afterwards, the highest-ranking officer in the store came my way to say thanks: “You saved us from a whole lot of problems.” 

But problems – like a purchasing committee probably not reading a single page – extended beyond the police. Politicians of that time also had a problem reading the people. And of course, that day the shop owner had a problem with me. 

One book had cost him the police contract worth thousands of birr. After first refusing to speak to me, he relented when his wife praised Allah. “Glad we didn’t get the sale,” he concluded. “It wasn’t for us.” Had the police bought the book, she warned, they would have come for us in the next roundup. 

Entering the darkness
The Pre-Abiy Era – before Abiy Ahmed became Ethiopia’s prime minister in 2018 – was marked by martial law and states of emergency. Unfortunately, journalists suffered, with radio silenced and print suffocated. But everyone wanted to learn more about local politics, so political content mattered more than price tags. For awhile, unlike other media colleagues, authors and publishers enjoyed a “suffocating freedom” – the kind where publishers announced authors’ lengthy prison sentences as if blessings and frequently visited prisoners in Kality and Kilin to to ink contracts.

So when government banned some publications, imprisoned authors and vendors, threatened printing houses and raised the price of newsprint, this gave birth to underground publishing houses. There, from guard to binder, only known and trusted relatives and colleagues worked, in grim times. And just as the government kept prisoners in the dark, publishers took root and came to prominence, in the dark, taking real risks, publishing books by familiar political figures or publishing during states of emergencies. Printing one book by Professor Mesfin in those days, for example, would be like yelling “Meles is a dictator!” at the main gate to Menelik’s Palace.

Books off the chests of street vendors
Amid such tumult, street book vendors – the liaison to so many readers – struggled. If street sellers were caught hawking controversial political books,for example, police might cart them off.  And when vendors got arrested, authors or publishers had to bail them out. Surprisingly enough, newly-invigorated, a handful of vendors moved up thinned ranks to publishing books, or even co-writing them.

In self-defense, itinerant vendors came up with a strategy to tuck safe bestsellers – cookbooks, romance, self-help, and “soft politics” – close to the chest, like a European ferenj carrying a baby. And like village kids toting backpacks, vendors strapped to their backs books “hardcore politics” considered trouble. Lots of trouble, such as those by authors Eskedner Nega, Andwalem Arage, Sisay Agena, Ermias Legesse, Ahimedhin Jebel, and many others who struggled to distribute. 

Yet, with sizzling titles, street vendors persisted. Moving along major sales routes, especially outdoor cafes and bars, vendors might describe a book some could barely read. Others – especially those apprentice writers – preach elaborate content, flipping pages and quoting excerpts. They’d outline an unbelievable ToC, tally 10 virtues of the book they are projecting, and bring books right to us, letting us touch, even stroke, them. To flex their own editorial skills, they might even push a name to a new customer, such as Bewketu Siyoum’s punchlines. “Try it, and see how it goes.”

Despite vendor warnings of books under attack, I could never decipher a coherent government policy of control or censorship. Some books considered highly controversial, more controversial than Meles himself, ended up in government libraries. Even books of Prof. Mesfin W/Mariam, considered the “ayatollah of the opposition,” appeared among libraries destined for the National Security office, headed by the most feared intelligence chief and shadow figure, Getachew A. 

At times the EPRDF got so confused, its enforcers used to act like agitated teens. Fikre Tolosa’s ‘Ye Oromo Ena Amhara Ewnetegna Yezer Minch’– (Amhara – Oromo Ethnic Root), with no so challenging content, prompted harassment of street book vendors for sometime. Even odder, Federal Police considered a how-to book, like Satawelawul Adirgew (Do it decisively),a call to civil resistance – to the headache of vendors who carried it strategically on the chest. And, though police didn’t bother to read more than the title of Yetekolefebet Kulfi (Key that has been locked), they slapped thevendors around, asking: “Who are you locking it on? The government? Ha? ”  

Dear esteemed readers: Whenever doubtful with the above anecdote, just have a momentary chat with a book vendor nearby, he showers you with more bizarre stories and make your day. 

Trafficking books like El Chapo
Arguably, despite the weight, street vendors most love the problem books – so valuable! Since selling one could be as risky as trafficking in Mexican cocaine. And they needed El Chapo’scohonesto carry books by Eskinder Nega (journalist imprisoned multiple times), Temesegen Desalegn (journalist renown for criticizing dictators with no sugarcoating) or Andargachew Tsige (British citizen, born in Ethiopia, once on a death row). 

From their own “cocaine hideouts,” vendors evolved important skills, like drug dealers having to quickly assess potential buyers. Pro-incumbent or opposition? Which books do customers eyeball?  Inevitably, conversations double as a background check. So listen in: 

Customer: “Annoying Sun, Ha?!” 
Vendor: “As annoying as TPLF?” 
(If the customer doesn’t seem upset by this remark, the vendor reaches for the “books in the back.”)

Or: 
Vendor: “Mister, what kind of book may I show you? I have the new Daniel Kibret.”
Customer: “No, thank you.”
Vendor: “I have Yismaykem’s A Slug’s Life, even if our life isn’t that different from a slug’s life.” (Ye Qend Awuta Nuro)

Or:
Vendor: “Sir! (G!ashe!) I have full selection of bestsellers”
Customer: “Please leave me alone.”
Vendor: “Mister, does the smell bother you as you sit here  that certain odor from the pipes? Anyway, this city doesn’t have leadership.” 

Customer, staring at the vendor in awe
Vendor, whispering into customer’s ear: “G!ashe!, have you read Ermias Legese’s City with no leaderships? (Balebet Alba Ketema). If you haven’t, the price is negotiable.” 

Strong readers, stronger vendors

Besides chatter, street vendors manipulating their market with clever pricing. They usually justify new (and higher) prices with factors complex enough to impress OPED oil sheiks. For example, vendors juggle political timing and risk  (state of emergency, higher price), banned or unbanned, content (hardcore politics or soft), market competition (vendors hustling nearby corners), the fame of the writer – and prison time served.

Prices also rise for posh neighborhoods like Bole (Medhanialem), teased for local political ignorance, with residents stocking bootlegged books for aesthetic value and a touch of Hollywood glamour.  Consider Born A Crime, by and about South African comedian Trevor Noah, but described by a vendor, without blinking, as “the first son of Obama.”  

Despite quirks, such vendors still do some heavy lifting, especially by providing alternatives to bookstores. For readers too lazy (or engrossed?) to set a book down and go out. For readers who fear entering shops, where shelves of unread books staring us down. For readers who enjoy intense bargaining, which is surely cultural and maybe even familial. Consider my mother, who never buys anything at a mall with fixed prices. “So boring, so unAfrican”, she grumbles. 

Bargaining runs through my bloodline, I rarely enjoy buying books from a store. Street vendors are my favorites. My preference is with the knowledge of the infamous razor carried by vendors for fixing and re-fixing a new fake price tag. That irritates many booklovers. Yet, faced with such tough opponents, vendors stand their ground. Layering on guilt, they’ll dig deep into our pockets and psyches, especially for those resisting purchases, to promote “mercy sales.” Again, listen:

My dear countryman, can you imagine my life? I’ve been walking all over the city on an empty stomach to sell a copy in this scorching sun. I need to get a penny, so I can buy a loaf of bread, so I can keep walking. If you don’t buy a book, I may end up a pickpocket. You choose.’ 

Choose even thinnest book, dear reader, and lift a burden from a vendor’s back.