Around the Cairo International Book Fair

I haven’t attended the Cairo International Book Fair in years. My guide during my return to the fair this January was a staggeringly cultured middle-aged Egyptian friend. He’s an autodidact who remembers first haunting the bookstalls and surreptitiously skimming pages when he was a penniless ten-year old, and the fair (and Cairo), was the uncontested epicenter of Arabic literature. Back then, the event was held in the upper-class island district of Zamalek; today it occupies fair grounds in Nasr City, a suburb built in the 1960 to provide cheap housing for army officers. It is also the neighborhood where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood held a prolonged sit-in last summer, calling for the reinstatement of President Morsi —a demonstration that was violently cleared by the police, leaving more than three hundred people dead. Things have only gotten worse since then. Two days after the fair opened, a car bomb exploded at the capital’s police headquarters. On January 25, the third anniversary of the uprising against Mubarak, Tahrir Square was taken over by crowds calling for another military general to run for president. Islamist and secular protesters were pursued and attacked by police in other parts of the city, leaving at least fifty dead, and hundreds arrested.

But, it is ten days later, and we are trying not to talk politics. With us is a Dutch academic who is pulling a carry-on suitcase and hunting for additions to his university’s library, as well as for all the recently announced nominees for this year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF, commonly known as “the Arabic Booker,” to be awarded in Abu Dhabi on April 29). Here, one can find books that will never make it to Cairo’s bookstores, and at discounted prices.

The crowd at Egyptian rapper Zap Thawrat’s book signing at the Cairo Book Fair.
The crowd at Egyptian rapper Zap Thawrat’s book signing at the Cairo Book Fair.

The pavilion of Egyptian publisher El Shorouk is packed. Ahmed Mourad’s The Blue Elephant, which has been nominated for the IPAF, is sold out. The author’s previous two books, Diamond Dust and Vertigo (the latter translated into English by Robin Moger and published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation in 2011), have popularized the crime thriller, a new genre in Egypt. Before becoming a full-time novelist, Mourad worked as an official presidential photographer, and his novels feature corruption and conspiracy in high places. His latest is largely set in an insane asylum, with a plot that involves a psychiatrist who treats an old friend accused of murder.

El Shorouk’s Mahmoud Seif tells me that also selling well is another detective novel, Hassan Kamal’s El Marhoum (”The Departed”), and Youssef Zeidan’s Azazeel, a novel about a tormented fifth-century Egyptian monk that was published in English by Atlantic Books in 2012 and whose translator, Jonathan Wright, just won the Saif Ghobash Banipal award. Seif says that last year, when Egypt’s government was controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood, readers were focused on political Islam, but this year, they have “come back to literature.” El Shorouk has also just published a new Arabic translation of one my favorite books about Egypt, Waguih Ghali’s brilliant, funny, fleet Beer in the Snooker Club. 

Back in the days when Egypt was under Mubarak, every year the question at the fair was: What book was banned? In 2000, Islamists won a battle in the country’s culture wars by orchestrating great outrage over the Syrian novelist Haidar Haidar’s A Banquet for Seaweed, which contained the following controversial passage: “In a nuclear age, a space age, an age of expanding minds, they still rule us with the law of the Bedouins' God and the Koran . . . Shit!” Over the years, offending authors have included Milan Kundera, Mohamed Choukri and Elias Khoury. The bans were always arbitrary—and the works could often be found tucked discreetly away. There were surprising lapses: I remember a book featuring Mubarak on the cover as a dried-up old vampire, sitting on a throne of cobwebs, being sold openly. Since the uprising three years ago, there have been no reports of censorship, although as one publisher noted, this year “you might have trouble with something about military autocracy.”

The other question used to be: Has any of the muthaqafeen (literally, the “cultured,”) spoken out of turn? The fair has also always been the occasion for Egypt’s public intellectuals to mark out their opposition, or loyalty, to the regime. Mubarak would traditionally meet with a set of well-known writers and thinkers on the occasion of the fair. In 2005, the late political scientist Mohamed Sayed Said famously told the president he should amend the constitution to introduce some political reforms. Mubarak was not pleased, and all of Sayed’s scheduled talks were cancelled.

There is little chance of any heated debates this year. The fair marks the rapprochementmuthaqafeen of the country’s intelligentsia and its security services, in the name of shrilly denouncing their common enemy, the Islamists. The talks have titles such as “The Egyptian Intellectual, Conscience of the Nation,” and “The Deep State and how it Protected Egyptian Identity under Brotherhood Rule.” The Ministry of Interior and of Defense each have their own displays, in which training manuals, histories of wars and presidents, and a few translated books (Fareed Zakaria’s The Post-American World, Mearsheimer and Walt’s The Israel Lobby) are displayed on faux-wooden shelves, surrounded by potted plants, velvet ropes, and gilded statues. I tried to attend a talk by the novelist Bahaa Taher, but he was forty-five minutes late, and the smell of cigarette smoke and officialdom drove me out of the building.

Our Dutch friend finds most of his books at the stall of the bookstore Tanmia, which opened in Downtown Cairo in 2011, in a neighborhood that has continued to be at the center of protests and clashes, and whose catalog is an eclectic selection of titles from Egypt, other Arab countries, and foreign works translated into Arabic. These include everything from The Hunger Games to 1984 to Lolita. A recent translation into Arabic of Gustave Le Bon’s 1895 Psychology of Crowds is doing well. An El Tanmia employee named Randa persuades me to make my only acquisition of the day (because I have too many unread Arabic novels at home): last year’s IPAF winner, The Bamboo Stalk by Saud Alsanousi, a book whose half-Kuwaiti, half-Filipino narrator suffers the indignities of looking like an immigrant laborer and being treated like a second-class citizen in his father’s country.

Many of those who come to the fair don’t buy books at all—they just consider it a fun outing. Cairo has a lively literary scene, but illiteracy remains high in Egypt, and reading for pleasure is not a common habit. Writers here regularly bemoan the dearth of readers. To their dismay, the only sector of the fair that grew year after year seemed to be religious and Islamist literature. This year there is, according to my companions, a notable decrease in that phenomenon.

On our way to the area housing publishers from other Arab countries, a crowd of young people flows past us, emitting a collective high-pitched fluttering sigh of excitement. A girl in a hot pink hijab and matching lipstick tells me that there’s a book signing by rapper Zap Tharwat. Later, I find some of his songs online, a mixture of the genre’s required bragging with the social awareness that many of the new “revolutionary” artists exhibit—he describes himself as “king of the oppressed.”

Saudi Arabia has its own hangar, a huge expanse of beige carpeting and identical stalls put up by the kingdom’s Ministry of Islamic Affairs. The vast majority of the books on offer are on religious topics, and they all look similar, thick tomes with titles in intricate gilded calligraphy. Young men in sandals, socks, short pants, and long beards—the outfit of the fundamentalist—earnestly peruse the books. Giggling teenage girls take group photos in front of large pictures of the Kaaba.

Across the way, at the stall of the Lebanese publisher Dar El Saqi, Issam Abu Hamden is promoting Solo, by the Saudi novelist Nour Abdul Majid, which is set in Cairo and chronicles the affair between a doorman and the wife of one of the residents of his building. He also has an Arabic edition of a book by the Lebanese feminist and poet Joumana Haddad, Superman is an Arab, a critique of Middle East machismo.Superman is an Arab, Haddad likes to provoke, and just for good measure there is a special introduction of the Arabic addition entitled, “Why I’m an Atheist.”

“I’ve been coming here for twenty years,” says Abu Hamden, “since my hair was black.” Regulars who have been buying books from him for years stop by, and haggle over prices. The Lebanese house’s volumes are expensive in Egypt, where many books sell for just a few dollars, and many people can’t afford even that. “The problem in Egypt is poverty,” says Abu Hamden, “material and of the mind.” Some of his bestsellers (meaning 3,000 copies sold across the Arab world) tackle the Arab Spring and the relation between religion and political power. A translation into Arabic of Olivier Roy’s Holy Ignorance has been selling best in Saudi Arabia, he says with a smile.

After that I wander around a little on my own. There are many stalls selling textbooks and computer manuals; there are stalls selling piles of old damaged books and magazines; there are ones with children’s toys. It is the end of a day in which nothing terrible has happened, and that in and of itself is a relief. Near the exit, as the sun sets, families, couples, and three young police conscripts stroll and sit on the grass, none of them holding any books.

Ursula Lindsey is a journalist and writer who has lived in Cairo since 2002. She blogs at The Arabist.