A Dispatch From the Cairo International Book Fair

The 47th edition of the Cairo International Book Fair began on January 27 and will continue through February 10. A historic meeting place and one of the biggest book fairs in Africa and the Middle East, it is an event where one can take the pulse of literary and intellectual life in Egypt and the region.

Unlike the well-known Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cairo fair is not a networking event for publishers but rather an opportunity for individuals and institutions to find new books at the best prices. Many buyers are students, professors and university administrators stocking up on textbooks and reference books. At the outlet of the Egyptian Book Organization, a government-owned publisher that releases deeply discounted no-frills editions of hundreds of classics and works of history, sociology and literary analysis, the staff can barely keep the shelves stocked. This year the Egyptian Ministry of Social Solidarity has also introduced an initiative to allow less well-off Egyptian families to use their food-subsidy cards to buy some books at reductions of 90 percent off the usual prices.

For many, the fair is also an opportunity for an inexpensive, pleasant outing. By the late afternoon, the streets surrounding the fairgrounds in the suburb of Nasr City are packed with traffic, and families carrying food are coming in to picnic on the grass between the book stalls and listen to free evening concerts.

Some of the Fair’s books. By Ursula Lindsey.

The theme of the fair this year is “Culture on the Front Lines”—the implied front lines being those of the country’s ongoing crackdown on the ousted and outlawed Islamist party the Muslim Brotherhood, and of the military conflict with terrorist groups taking place largely in the Sinai peninsula.

The fair also commemorates Egyptian writer Gamal El Ghitany, who passed away in 2015. Collections of El Ghitany’s works—including acclaimed novels such as Zayni Barakat, which is set in medieval Cairo and based on extensive archival research by the author—are some of the fair’s new releases.

There is a busy schedule of talks and seminars, although the fair’s web site is not operational and programs were so difficult to find when this reporter visited on the second day of the fair that an employee at the press center handed me one like contraband, saying: “Don’t show this to anyone.”

I attended a panel discussion about a new book by Hafez Shems Eddin, a professor of geology at Ain Shams University, entitled “Scientific Thinking and Knowledge Production.” Shems Eddin paints a dark picture of knowledge production in Egypt and the region, saying it lags far behind the West and arguing that Egypt is an “information country” rather than a “knowledge country” and that this leads to a lack of independence both on a national and individual level. “Those who don’t know follow those who know,” he says.

The other panelists concurred. “Professors should ask themselves not how many hundreds of dissertations have they supervised, but what those papers have added to world knowledge,” said one of them. Yet for a panel on scientific thinking, the discussion is remarkably short on statistics or specific policy proposals. One panelist calls for “sharp self-criticism;” another for “democracy and transparency.” When the discussion is opened to audience members, one commenter condemns Egypt’s “backwards, superstitious” society, another its “backwards, despotic” government. A professor argues that the problem isn’t that no research takes place, but that when it does, it isn’t put to any use.

A common complaint heard at the fair is that people do not read enough and that writers and publishers can barely make a living; books are usually printed in editions of 500 to 1000 copies. Low literacy rates, little disposable income and an education system that does not instill a love of reading are all blamed. Yet the book fair communicates the vitality of cultural life here. For at least the past decade, there has been a renewed and sustained interest in fiction, with young writers exploring new genres (such as sci-fi, crime thrillers and poetry written in dialect) and best-selling novels, turning their authors into famous public figures.

Many of the publishers here dedicate a sizable section of their catalogue to books translated into Arabic—something that seems to be a change from previous years. Over a decade ago, the Arab Human Development Report sounded the alarm on the lack of translation into and from Arabic; since then, many initiatives have been launched to address this gap. The Egyptian Ministry of Culture’s National Translation Center translated about 200 new titles last year, its employees tell me—and generally sells 20,000 books at the book fair alone. The private El Tanmia bookstore, which opened five years ago, focuses almost exclusively on translations into Arabic; its owner, Khaled Lutfy, says they had a catalogue of 500 new books last year. In non-fiction, Stephen Hawkings is selling well, he says; in fiction, George Orwell.

From the Fair, by: Ursula Lindsey.

And publishers are also adopting new technologies. Ashraf Galal, marketing manager at Dar Nashr LalGamaat (Publishing House for Universities) says that his publishing house now makes available its hundreds of reference books and academic studies for download to mobile phones through a yearly subscription. “It is much cheaper than buying the books,” he says, “but we have to keep up with the times.”

The organizers of this year’s fair say it has attracted 850 publishers from 34 countries. Publishers from Arab countries are gathered in one large hall; distribution of books between Arab countries is weak, held up by bureaucracy and censorship, so the fair is one of the only places where one can browse so many titles from across the region. Outside, second-hand booksellers, who have temporarily relocated to the book fair from their usual stalls in the Ezbekiya gardens, hawk their wares. In front of the Chinese pavilion (which has a pagoda roof and offers Chinese dictionaries and books on China translated into Arabic) there is a queue to take pictures with a cut-out of Jackie Chan.

There is also the usual extensive array of religious books on offer, although books by some political Islamists may now be hard to find. Last year books by Sheikh Youssef El-Qaradawi, who resides in Qatar and is a strong supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, and by Sayed Qutb, the Islamist writer and ideologue who led the group in the 1950s and 60s, were reportedly removed from bookstands.

Often the book fair is marked by some small uproar—a daring pronouncement by a public intellectual, a controversial new book. Although it seems as busy as ever this year, it also seems subdued. This matches the general atmosphere of the country, which under the leadership of the military and President Abdel Fattah El Sisi has witnessed severe repressions of freedom of speech against activists, journalists, academics and writers.

I take a break to sit in one of the large tents serving tea, coffee and shisha, with a group of local writers. “The year after we got rid of the Brotherhood was great,” an Egyptian novelist tells me, referring to the book fair that took place in 2014. “We felt free. But now we feel frustrated. It’s worse than under the Brothers.”

New violations of freedom of expression take place almost every day. In December, the journalist and researcher Ismail Alexandrani, who specializes in the security situation in Sinai, was detained upon his arrival at the Hurghada airport. On January 13, the poet Omar Hazek was prevented from departing for the Netherlands, where he was to be awarded the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Free Expression Award. The Egyptian-German researcher Atef Botros was banned from entering the country on January 29. Botros lectures at the University of Marburg and is the founder of an NGO that aims to provide cultural and educational services to poor Egyptians.  And this month the author Ahmed Naji will go to court for the second time, accused of obscenity and offending public morals by a startled reader and an overzealous prosecutor over a few explicit sex scenes in Naji’s novel “The Use of Life.”

The premises of the independent publisher Merit were raided at the end of January. Publisher Mohamed Heshim—who has brought out the work of many new talents and has long been a vocal presence in the country’s protest movements—was then handed a bill for back taxes of over two million Egyptian Pounds or about $250,000. Heshim says the bill is “revenge” for his political activism. “They want to close down public debate,” he says.
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