While wandering the streets of Den Haag today, I came upon a store called, “Boekhandel en Antiquariaat” (“Booktrader and Antiquarian”). Sitting there on a display shelf was a beautiful 1976 edition of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyyat, the famous English rendition by Edward Fitzgerald.
I stopped dead in my tracks and stared, transfixed. Like a whore in an Amsterdam window, it beckoned to me with its crimson leather cover and Indianesque lithographs, whispering, “I’m only €16…”
“But that translates to $26,” I protested. “That’s a week’s worth of food! I’m not exactly making a lot of money here in the Netherlands and I need to save up for tuition at Leuven.”
“Ah, my cute little intellectual. Who needs to munch on crumbs and cheese when you can devour words of wisdom?” retorted the tomeful temptress.
Thus enticed, I enterred the store in the hopes of haggling, only to discover, to my horror, that if there’s one nation on the earth that wholly, utterly lacks the bazaar mentality, it’s the Dutch. I explained how happy I would be to purchase the book, but as a poor student and even more impoverished journalist all I could afford would be, say, €10, tops. My negotiation attempt was met with the Netherlands’ legendary vermanende vinger (wagging finger).
The elderly clerk, with daggers of disdain in her eyes, then inquired, “Why do you even want this book?”
“Because I study Islam,” I answered frankly.
“Islam?” she exclaimed, then shook her head sadly, as though she were saying to herself, Mijn gott, heidense een andere. Finally, with a heavy sigh, she asked, “Do you want it or not?”
I rubbed my hands. The crimson cover seemed to wink at me, whispering, “I accept Visa or Mastercard.”
No! I had to resist the impulse to buy! Baha’u’llah teaches us to be sacrificing, diligent, and disciplined, and so I turned away, hand upon my brow in consternation. As I stumbled out of the store, I nearly tripped over someone’s sleeping child, carefully forgotten in a stroller right smack in the middle of the doorway. I wondered to myself, What the hell is wrong with this country? Leaving kids in doorways, refusing to haggle for books — I’m a long way from America or the Middle East. And while I’m at it, why, O God, can’t we drink ink instead of wine and eat ideas instead of bread?