On any given night at Aaliya's, a Beirut-based bookstore, you might encounter Gaelic dancing, a jazz quartet, or half-priced nightcaps. For cofounders Niamh Fleming-Farrell and William Dobson, the space is as much community gathering point as it is bookstore: a place to celebrate creatives and the work they produce. Always on offer is a seasonal lunch or a snack from the café, a wide selection of drinks at the bar, and—of course—an excellently-chosen selection of English-language new and used books.
Below, Niamh talks us through the store's founding, beginning with the process of choosing the name. She tells us what's surprised her, what sets Aaliya's Books apart from other bookstores in Beirut, and which titles she's most excited about right now.
I read that you named your store after the narrator of Rabih Alameddine’s book An Unnecessary Woman. Did you try other names before settling on this one? What is it about this character that inspired you?
I had one other name, which was quickly dismissed by my business partner, William. I liked the idea of calling it “The Whole World” – perhaps rendered in Arabic: “Kul al-alam” – after a line from John McGahern’s novel That they may face the rising sun: 'I've never, never moved from here and I know the whole world'. It’s spoken by a man who has never left his local, west of Ireland community to someone who has moved to the area from overseas. Aaliya’s Books is of course a much better and more fitting name, given that we were discussing the book the night one of us said to the other: “Wouldn’t it be great to have a bookshop in Beirut!"
You founded Aaliya’s Books in 2016. What made you want to start the bookstore, and what sets it apart from other bookstores in Beirut?
I worked in a bookstore while I was at university in Dublin (Dubray Books on Grafton Street) and I loved it, so I’d always quietly entertained the idea. Then William and I drank a lot of whisky (while celebrating the Scottish poet Robbie Burns) and found ourselves talking about Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman and its main character, Aaliya, who ran a bookshop in Beirut. Several days later we met for lunch and William said: “Let’s not just talk about opening a bookshop, let’s actually do it.” And we did.
In your time running the bookstore so far, what’s most surprised you?
Simple — that people still read! When we first told friends and acquaintances that we wanted to open a bookshop they said, “but no one here reads.” A part of me thought that might be true — it isn’t. The Lebanese read. Foreigners who pass through Lebanon read. Lebanese home from abroad read. My conclusion: people still read books. When we added the café and bar to the bookstore we set sales targets for each section of the business: the bookstore continues to outperform our targets.
Your events calendar is packed with book clubs, wine tastings, dance nights, and more. Can you tell us more about these events, and about your commitment to building a literary community in Beirut?
We are very fortunate in how our space is set up — the shop is L-shaped. This means we can host large talks, storytelling evenings and poetry nights with upwards of 100 attendees on the long side of the L, and smaller, more intimate workshops on the other. Most of the events that take place at the shop are organized by groups or initiatives that come to us to partner with them in hosting the events, and we love doing it and becoming part of the communities they are building. I'm particularly proud of our ongoing relationships with two amazing literary communities in Beirut: the Cliffhangers storytelling group and the Fade In: creative writing hub. In general, Aaliya’s, as I see it, is committed to being friendly, inclusive and sincere, and as an upshot of that we have formed a community of similarly minded people. We’ll keep doing that, and keep partnering with people who do what they do with passion and integrity.
What are some of your goals for the bookstore in the years ahead?
My main goal is for this bookshop to still be here, going strong, in 10 years’ time (which given the turnover of businesses in Beirut, is quite a goal). I’d also like to see the bookshop very much expand by then.
Which books in the store are most you excited about right now? Any recommendations?
I’m in the middle of reading Lincoln in the Bardo for tomorrow night’s book club. I’m enthralled — though I have no idea where it is going.
I really liked Laurent Binet’s The Seventh Function of Language. It threads a strange line between fact and fiction, and makes one want to read the entire oeuvre of later-20th century French philosophy as well as all of Umberto Eco. I like books that guide me to reading other books — indeed, that was one of the great pleasures of Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman.
Lastly, I really recommend Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. It’s another west of Ireland novel (notice a theme) and, forgoing full stops, it comprises one long glorious sentence that takes you right to the soul of a middle-aged civil engineer. There’s nothing big or ballsy or dramatic about it (other than the single sentence); it just thrums with reality and feeling, and wonderful humour.