When 73-year-old Chicago resident Naseem Sarwar was retiring from his job with the American government, he and his wife Ijaz Nasreen realised exactly how sorely they missed the company of the colourful, relatable characters from Urdu literature.
Originally from Faisalabad, the couple has been living in the US for over 40 years. Their relationship with Urdu literature has lasted for more than 35 years and, hungry for distinctly Pakistani writing in their adopted home, they decided to go out in search of a shop that sold books to satiate their appetite.
“There were books being sold on Pakistan, but none of them were in Urdu,” says Naseem.
“We would ask people to send us Urdu newspapers because you couldn’t find anything here,” adds Ijaz.
Eventually, in 2000, they took it upon themselves to change things around and established their own bookstore. Tucked away in a Pakistan-ised part of Chicago’s Devon Street, Kitab Ghar is perhaps the only bookstore of its kind that sells Urdu literature in the US.
“The reason for opening Kitab Ghar was that there was no store for miles around us that was selling Urdu literature,” Naseem says. “Secondly, I was retiring from my job, and we wanted a businessjis mein desi bhaag bhaag ke aana na shuru kardein (where too many desis wouldn’t come). That’s why we opened a bookstore.”
Ijaz, his lively and energetic wife who hails from a literary family, says her husband found the space for the bookstore while she was on vacation in Pakistan. “It was a surprise!” she laughs.
Pakistanis and Indians who have lived in Chicago speak reverently of the store, whose shelves are laden with biographies, fiction and non-fiction books and basic Urdu learning guides. The couple gets these books through reputed Pakistani publishing houses like the Lahore-based Sang-e-Meel Publications.
“We wanted to open a bookstore so we could introduce Urdu literature here. We also sell Pakistani dramas, speeches of Quaid-e-Azam and DVDs of films here,” Ijaz explains.
But while we spend time in the store, not a single customer walks in. Naseem says they get many orders through their website, but with the diminishing number of Urdu readers, it is uncertain how long the couple can sustain the business.
Their clientele is mostly from the older generation, says Naseem. “There are fewer youngsters coming in.”
Living in the US, young children rarely have the chance to speak Urdu in public and are restricted to speaking it with their family. “It is painful when we see children here who can’t speak Urdu,” he says.
The couple tries to encourage reading. “In fact, if a kid reads one line of Urdu in our store, we give them Lailo Nahar for free,” Naseem says.
But despite decreasing demand, Naseem and Ijaz see some signs of hope. According to Naseem, “There is now a trend where parents are buying basic guides on how to learn Urdu for their children.”
He also feels that the language is considered a part of their Pakistani identity by many younger parents raising their children in the US. “Even when parents here can’t teach their children to write in Urdu, they try and talk to them in the language. They feel that Urdu is part of their identity and that is how we try to promote it too.”
Following the September 11 attacks, Naseem feels, even foreigners appeared to develop an interest in understanding Urdu and they have the occasional foreigner visiting the store too. “After 9/11, there were Urdu classes being held in Chicago, and some foreigners used to come buy books and maps,” he says.
For the couple, however, their main goal in running Kitab Ghar is to promote Urdu. “There is this belief that Urdu is a dying language,” says Naseem. “I consider Urdu as a language that was created from a process so it cannot die. I call it the language of Asia.”
Ijaz seconds him. “Urdu is our national language. I always speak Urdu — even when I met Hillary Clinton I spoke to her in Urdu!”
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 8th, 2012.