They call him "Sheikh Tijlid" – Sheikh Binder – because he is the oldest and the most honoured bookbinder in Beirut.
There are only five left in Lebanon, repairing old newspapers, handwritten 17th-century Korans, ministry archives, cutting and pasting and then modelling fine leather covers and impressing on that wonderful soft leather the title of each volume in gold leaf. Riyad Shaker al-Khabbaz lives for his bunker of an office with its ancient iron presses, its century-old steel Arabic typeface from Germany, France and England. Some of his presses come from the homes of priests – who were the bookbinders of Beirut in centuries past.
He hands me a Koran, written in black and red ink, the margins adorned with yet more handwriting, interpretations of the sura – 300, 400 years old? – and he tells me about his client. "He is a man who greatly loves a Lebanese woman and he wants to give this to her as a gift. It is worth $100,000."
Fisk picks up the hundreds of ancient pages, so light that they move like feathers, radiating age and a world we shall never recover, unless, I suppose, we believe the words of the holy book. Its original leather covers are coloured crimson and green and gold and they rest in my hands like parchment. "Sheikh Tijlid" will have to repair them – he prefers the word "reconstitute" – just as he does the protective leather of the Bibles which churches still bring to him.
Bookbinding is an ancient art – The Independent's Beirut archives are being steadily bound in leather in Riyad's shop next to the old Turkish Serail, once a Turkish army stables, now the office of the prime minister (which, currently, alas, Lebanon does not have). Riyad is a man who gives context to the city in which I have lived these past 33 years, an institution older than the constitution of his own country, which may be why ministers and MPs and clergymen and wise men and – of course – criminals seek his help.
He stayed in this little two-roomed office and in his home nearby throughout the 15-year civil war. "The rockets exploded around me here but I was always honest and neither I nor my family were ever hurt."
He has a surprising smile, this little 74-year-old man, his big, bespectacled eyes giving him the appearance of a friendly mole, talking of duty to God and the importance of personal integrity. He sometimes makes me believe in that rarest of animals, an honest Lebanese businessman.
"During the war, a Palestinian came to me and he said he had 100,000 Lebanese passports. He wanted me to print names in them. If I did, he said, he would give me $100,000. This was during the war; there was no business, no money. So I asked my wife for her advice. She said: 'What are you waiting for?' I told her the Syrians (their 40,000 soldiers were installed in Lebanon at the time) would kill me. I said to my wife: 'So you would sacrifice me for $100,000?' This Palestinian man bought an apartment for each of his children – and then he died. So who was the idiot? Me! In those days, $100,000 could have bought me a mountain!"
But Riyad has always stood by his honesty. Which is why the great and the good of Lebanese society have flocked to his ill-painted double doors. Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Lebanese Druze and my favourite nihilist (and dinner host), often calls. So did Kamel Asaad, former speaker of the Lebanese parliament, Bahij Tabbara, a former minister, the Hariri family. On a high shelf is a curled sheaf of white leather, a dark reminder of murder and chaos. "Bashir Gemayel sent this leather to me and I used to frame his photo albums for him. Always in white."
Of course, I think to myself. Bashir Gemayel was the most brutal of all Lebanese Christian militia leaders, eventually exalted to the presidency with the help of his Israeli chums in 1982, then murdered in a massive explosion at party headquarters – which provoked the Israelis to break their promises to the Americans and to invade west Beirut and to surround the Palestinian Sabra and Chatila camps and to send Bashir's goons in and to watch while these killers executed and disembowelled and raped their way through the camps. Yes, the leather would be white.
It is as if the war never ended. Which, I suppose, it did not for those who remember it, as I do still. In the age of automation and computers, the binding of books is now a machine craft, no longer the work of individuals. Yes, I realise now, Riyad Shaker al-Khabbaz is a craftsman, and that is why the Lebanese like him, Jumblatt and the Hariris and Tabarra and the long-dead Gemayel. And, I rather think, Fisk as well. He is what Lebanon was when it was young and innocent and honourable. "I learned this trade – and there is not one day that I have ever cursed it," he tells me.
The Sheikh of Bookbinding used to work in the officers of the Al-Hayat newspaper, printing everything from news reports to tram tickets – yes, Beirut used to have gold and brown wooden tramcars – and each evening now his two sons, ex-soldiers, arrive in his bunker to help him in his work.
"During the war, I had a lot of books belonging to a Christian gentleman on the other side of the front line," he remembers. "One day, I put them all in a taxi. I crossed the line and a Phalangist militiaman asked me why a Muslim like me had crossed over. For books? He could not understand. I saw people lying dead in the street and in cars. But my taxi took me to the owner of the books and I handed them over and came back to west Beirut. No one ever harmed me or my family in the war."
The Sheikh of Bookbinding was protecting the archives of the Central Bank under missile fire, just as he now binds The Independent's files while drinking coffee and letting me roam through ancient copies of Lebanese newspapers. There, suddenly, is the photograph of a murdered Palestinian official in Paris – why, I saw his grave the other day in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris – the paper already brown and curled with age. A smart new crimson leather cover will soon embrace it, as Riyad, in his dying trade, preserves the blood of history.Reuse content