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Egyptian Editions Help Arab Writers Reach New Readers

Behind the glass facades of Downtown Cairo bookstores, visitors will see stacks of books by authors from other Arab countries but printed in Egypt. These special Egyptian editions provide the authors a gateway to the Egyptian cultural scene, publishers say, and allow local readers to buy books at prices lower than those coming from outside the country.

Publishing Egyptian editions of Arabic literature is a strategy that some Egyptian publishing houses started using years ago, in order to overcome challenges like customs fees, shipping costs, and other logistical factors.

Publishers say the practice has been a great success, with evidence that locally printed Arabic books are best-sellers at some bookstores that present them regularly.

Mahmoud Lotfy, director of Tanmia bookstore in Downtown Cairo, says the practice got a push from the high-profile literary prizes for Arabic literature that have emerged in recent years. These prizes have “contributed to directing readers’ tastes and created a market that did not exist before,” Lotfy said. (See a related article, “Abdulrazak Gurnah: ‘Arab’ Nobel Laureate Is Little Known to Arabs.”)

A Thirst for Prize Winners

Tanmia started publishing books by authors from outside Egypt in 2016, he said, “after realizing the readers’ thirst for Arabic works that won major literary prizes.”

Lotfy started in this regard with the novel “Destinies: Concerto of the Holocaust and the Nakba” by the Palestinian writer Rabai Al-Madhoun after it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Cairo’s Tanmia bookstore started printing Egyptian editions “after realizing the readers’ thirst for Arabic works that won major literary prizes.”

Mahmoud Lotfy
The bookstore’s director

The prestigious award, sometimes called “the Arab Booker,” is funded by the Abu Dhabi Department of Culture and Tourism.  Each of the six writers whose novels reach the short list for the award receives a $10,000 prize, and the winner receives an additional $50,000. Despite its nickname, however, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction is “completely independent” of the London-based Booker Prize, its website says. (See a related article, “Arab Women Writers Struggle to Get the Readers They Deserve.”)

After about five years of printing Arabic works in Egypt, Lotfy confirms the strategy’s success. Providing Egyptian editions of some Arabic books “helped make valuable books available to the Egyptian reader at reasonable prices,” he said.

Lotfy also believes that the Egyptian editions have “helped to a great extent in fighting the book forgery mafia” and have allowed authors to “communicate with wider circles through signing parties with Egyptian readers.”

The Appeal of the Egyptian Market

Some authors are grateful for such opportunities. “Is there an Arab writer who does not wish his words to reach Egypt?” asks the Iraqi novelist Inaam Kachachi. Answering her own question, she adds: “Cairo was and will remain the center of gravity in the Arab cultural balance.”

The General Authority for Culture Palaces, a government agency that provides books at subsidized prices, issued an Egyptian edition of Kachachi’s “Al Nabizah” (“The Outcast”) this year. The novel, her fourth, was short-listed for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019.

Its publication in Egypt ” made me happy,” Kachachi said, “because the novel was sold for less than half a dollar, and this contributed to the interest of many readers to buy and read it.”

The Moroccan poet Hassan Najmi views the Egyptian market as “a source of great temptation for any Arab author.” That’s because of Egypt’s large population (102 million people), he said, “as well as the symbolic position of Egyptian culture, which represents a great cultural incubator for Arabs.”

Najmi has published several works in Egypt with private publishing houses, and a new collection of his poetry was recently published by the General Authority for Cultural Palaces.

Publishing in Egypt is “a support for the writer’s image outside his country,” Najmi says, “because the Egyptian public has an influential reference authority.”

A Syrian Novel’s ‘Second Birth’

The Syrian novelist Khalil Sweileh also has published in Egypt. Sweileh, who won the Sheikh Zayed Book Award in 2018  for “Ikhtibar al-Nadam” (“Remorse Test”), recalls his experience with publishing an earlier novel, “Warraq al-Hubb,” in an Egyptian edition.

The Syrian edition had been a critical success, he said, but “was unable to penetrate the Arab reading map.” Its reprinting by Dar Al-Shorouk, in Cairo, was a “second birth,” he said. That was reinforced after the novel won, in 2009, the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, which is presented annually by the American University in Cairo Press. It was published in English in 2012 as “Writing Love.” (See a related article, “University Press Thrives On New Arabic Fiction.”)

After Syrian uprising ignited, Sweileh completed his novel “Janat Albarabira” (“Barbarians’ Paradise”), but was unable to publish it in Damascus. He resorted to publishing it in Cairo through Dar Al-Ain in 2014. He repeated the experience the following year with his critical book “The Law of Guarding Lust“, which was issued by the Akhbar Al-Youm Foundation.

The value of publishing in Egypt, Sweileh said, “is not only related to the wide opportunity that Egypt provides for the popularity of the Arab novelist, but also because of the joy of infiltrating the life-blood of a country that was a haven for different audiences.”

“The Egyptian editions of my works opened avenues for new readers, whom I met during signing ceremonies, and they kept in touch with me on social media.”

Jalal Barjas  
The Jordanian novelist

The Jordanian novelist Jalal Barjas is working with Tanmia to publish an Egyptian edition of his novel “Dafatir al Warraq” (“Notebooks of the Bookseller”), which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction this year.

Publishing in Egypt will allow him “to reach a very wide range of readers,” Barjas said. He added: “The Egyptian editions of my works opened avenues for new readers, whom I met during signing ceremonies, and they kept in touch with me on social media.”

A Longtime Practice

Nora Rashad, director of publishing at the Egyptian Lebanese House, a publisher in Cairo, said the house had started publishing the works of some Arab authors nearly 30 years ago. “The work has increased in recent years, thanks to the popularity created by the awards,” she said.

Facilitating the exchange books in Arab markets has been a longtime goal, Rashad said, but costs and regulations were a problem. Issuing editions in Egypt was “an ideal solution, because it reduces the cost of publishing and enhances the writer’s presence in the largest publishing market in the Arab world.”

“The work has increased in recent years, thanks to the popularity created by the awards,”

Nora Rashad
Director of publishing at the Egyptian Lebanese House

According to a study issued by the Arab Publishers Union last July, Egypt topped the list of the most active Arab countries in publishing in 2019. It published 23,000 book titles that year. The next country on the list, Iraq, published 8,400 titles.

Recently, the Egyptian Lebanese House published the Egyptian edition of the novel “Khataf Alhabib” (“The Kidnapping of the Beloved”) by the Kuwaiti writer Talib Al-Refai. The Egyptian edition coincides with the novel’s publication in 13 other Arab countries under a “simultaneous publication” arrangement.

Rashad says: “The author waived his financial rights and gave each publisher the opportunity to work on printing the novel, as if he were the only publisher, to bypass the obstacles that stand in the way of the reader’s right to obtain literary work.”

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Al-Refai told Al-Fanar Media that his idea was “to publish my novel in 14 Arab countries at one time, with the aim of making it accessible to any Arab reader, through local publishing houses.”

Al-Refai says what he has done is “a new and unprecedented initiative that broke the iron collar of Arab publishing, and demonstrated the ability of the Arab writer to deliver his creative output to all Arab readers.”


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