He started showcasing heavy metal magazines and Queer Studies books in Saeed Book Bank decades ago. Fasi Zaka recalls his meetings with Saeed Qureshi

Saeed Qureshi, of the famed Saeed Book Bank of Peshawar, and latterly Islamabad, passed away recently. I knew him passingly, but I met him frequently. Every week as a child in Peshawar I would go to Saeed Book Bank to get magazines, comics and books. I grew up in a household that eschewed cable, and it was before Musharraf controlled democracy and unfettered the airwaves. In a way, Saeed Book Bank was my window to the world.

In Peshawar there were two major places people could source their words on pulp, the erstwhile Book Bank and its main competitor the London Book Company. Their rivalry was intense, it was only fitting that they were situated opposite each other, divided by a road that led to the heart of Saddar, almost in a perennial face off due to an accident of real estate.
Saeed Book Bank was my window to the world

The war of the book stores was won by Saeed Book Bank. I have a theory why – but it is entirely premised on conjecture. London Books had more children’s books, the kind one buys indiscriminately to keep the little ones busy and off one’s back. The Book Bank was different; if you were a bon vivant any and all pretensions could be satisfied. Now here is the speculation, I can only imagine it was Saeed Qureshi responsible for this. I very much doubt his interest in Heavy Metal, but magazines about purposeful cacophony merited a spot on the shelf. So did Queer Studies, reference work on agriculture and the classics. My interaction with Mr Qureshi was at the till; I wish I had asked him why and how he chose his stock.

So it was an eclectic collection, but it was also a seemingly endlessly expanding one. The art of finely managed congestion was achieved through a labyrinth of shelves. In time there was an expansion into a basement where the more esoteric titles were available. I liked the smell of Saeed Book Bank. A lot of aged books have a pleasing smell, a bit like an empty room with real leather furniture and shallow carpets usually used by heavy smokers

I once saw Saeed Qureshi speak more on one occasion than I ever did in all the other times I ever saw him. I must have been twelve or so, and Mr. Qureshi was behind the counter as he always was when two men struck an engaged conversation with him. They were arguing that the magazines on display should be censored with a black marker. The magazines in question were Cosmo and its ilk with skinny models pouting at dead tree punters.

Qureshi first argued that he did not have to censor anything that the government had not. When the men raised his moral responsibility, he shut them down. The only moral responsibility he saw, as I paraphrase what he said, was running a bookstore and selling his wares fairly. He did not think any book or magazine could make someone they are not.

I left before the conclusion of the discussion. I am sure it was a long discussion, defending Cosmo, for whatever reason, is not an easy job, even today. In some ways this also reminds of a life lesson I learnt at the store, at much about the same time.

Saeed Book Bank, Islamabad
Saeed Book Bank, Islamabad

In the evening I was browsing through books and magazines, taking an inordinately long time to select what I wanted.  Another patron was doing the same when one of the staff employed came up to him and suggested he buy something. The young man promptly left.

When I went home I told my mother of the incident, and rather embarrassingly added with pride that the staff member said nothing to me and let me peruse. I thought it was evidence that the staff member recognized some sort of bibliophile in me. My mother dressed me down rather calmly and pointed out I had earned no such distinction; the man only recognized me as a paying customer. Years later the same happened to me on a day when I was particularly unkempt by one of the newer employees. I went away, my ego hurt, but recognizing how much of culture and mind-expanding opportunities were perilously dependent upon our class and income.

The flagship store Saeed Book Bank has built in Islamabad has become a veritable landmark. It satisfies my ethnic ego to tell people, who react incredulously, that the store came from Peshawar to bring some culture to the capital. I have a group of friends, both ethnic Pakhtuns and Peshawari Hindko speakers, from my Edwardes College days that I am still close to, and on occasion we often take jabs at one another making mildly racist jokes. M. Anis, a PTI supporter, and one of my closest friends, once came up with a classic against us, “You Pakhtuns have made no contributions to the world since you invented the charpai. And the only real man you ever produced is Parvez Khattak.” While Saeed Qureshi was not a Pakhtun, I would like to claim him for us, Saeed Book Bank makes a third and worthy addition to that affectionately puerile list.