The open rusty lock on the dusty gigantic old door of the first-floor apartment of 6B Qasr al-Nil Street seems to signal a dead-end for downtown publishing house Merit.
But once inside there’s a familiar smell of old paper. Mohamed Hashem’s little griffon Pooch welcomes me while Lili the golden Labrador lies majestically beneath her owner’s legs. With a cigarette in one hand and a Stella in the other, the 55-year-old award-winning publisher sits at his desk to welcome his stream of visitors with a smile.
The place seems the same as it has always been, with stacks of older and newer books on its run-down wooden shelves, including Merit’s latest, “I Am the Director,” by the late scriptwriter Nadine Shams. The book was launched on Tuesday. Nothing in these friendly, cluttered rooms signals an imminent departure.
“I will get over this … all these kind hearts are homes for me,” Hashem wrote in response to hundreds of supportive posts on his Facebook page on June 8, after being informed that the apartment’s lease would not be renewed.
Hashem says the owners, who bought the apartment in the 1970s for a few thousand Egyptian pounds, now want Merit out immediately, having been offered a LE1.5 million deal.
Merit was founded in 1998 and publishes a wide variety of books, including poetry, fiction and nonfiction, but with a particular focus on young talent, the kind of writers who previously had to resort to self-publishing and extremely limited distribution.
Some of the best-known books published by Merit are Alaa al-Aswany’s bestselling “Yacoubian Building” (Emaret Yacoubian, 2002) and the same author’s “Friendly Fires” (Neeran Sadeeka, 2004), Ahmed Mourad’s “Vertigo” (2007), and “The Law of Inheritance” (Qanounn al-Werathah, 2002) by Yasser Abdel Latif.
“We publish around 50 books a year, mostly fiction, in addition to social and political studies,” says Hashem proudly. “All Omar Taher’s poetry and the early [Arabic] translations of Paulo Coelho came out to the world from here. When the Ministry of Culture stopped playing a role in publishing for young writers, Merit assumed this role and made a way for some of the biggest names now.”
While Hashem claims that LE1.5 million is much higher than the apartment’s real value — “a scary number” — it’s difficult to know whether this is a straightforward story of a small business being priced out of an area or something more sinister.
Hashem explains that a few months before the 2011 revolution, the apartment owner was asked by state security to vacate the apartment but the rental contract was still valid then.
Merit is known for its anti-censorship stance, and during and since the January 25 uprising 6B has acted as a safe haven for revolutionaries as well as the young writers who see Merit as a home and “Uncle Hashem” as a parental figure.
“When [Hosni] Mubarak stepped down, I got dressed and headed to Tahrir only to find myself in Merit,” wrote journalist Shady Zalat on the Facebook page. “Where else would I celebrate?”
Hashem, originally from Tanta, is an author of many works of short fiction himself, and has long stood for freedom of expression, as a publisher and as a activist involved in the early stages of the Kefaya movement. He has been a target of various attacks in the past three and half years: Islamists tried to smear his reputation by describing him as anti-Islam, and in 2011, during the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he was accused of vandalism and inciting chaos after distributing masks and blankets to protesters in nearby Tahrir Square. But he remained defiant, and no charges were pressed.
During the weeks-long sit-in against the Muslim Brotherhood’s moves at the Ministry of Culture in June 2013, he was one of the main figureheads.
In October, however, Hashem wrote on Facebook that he would emigrate because “the noise of the machinery of dictator-makers is unbearable.” Explaining that he did not want to join either those practicing “political terrorism under the name of religion” or the “chorus deifying Colonel Abdel Fattah al-Sisi,” he said he would leave Merit in the care of a younger writer.
But this seems to be forgotten now. Merit will be moving to another place, hopefully within a month, and Hashem says he is committed to his publishing contracts.
“I will find a new place,” he promises, somewhere else within downtown Cairo.
“But my heart will remain in 6B Qasr el-Nil,” he says, adding that for him the apartment “is history, it is [Ahmed Fouad] Negm, it is Ibrahim Aslan, it is Ibrahim Mansour and many others.”
“6B Qasr el-Nil is not a place; it is a lifetime, a history, lots of details, people and memories,” wrote Passant Hassan, another journalist, on the Facebook page.
While writers such as Aswany and Mourad received their big breakthroughs with Merit — having been given rejections elsewhere — for their more recent books they have chosen Al-Shorouk, a bigger publishing house with more resources. Dawwen (founded 2008), Al-Ain (2000) and Sharqeyat (1985) are the publishing houses that are the closest nowadays in terms of goals to Merit, but business models similar to Merit’s are almost extinct: it’s fundamentally a one-man show that gives opportunities to young unproven talents.
“Some friends have suggested that Ismailia [a real estate company that owns a lot of historic downtown buildings] buys the apartment from the owner and rents it to Merit,” Hashem says. Others have suggested a Merit subscriptions scheme with discount benefits, or even selling shares in the company.
“Both ideas are valid and I am open to negotiations,” says Hashem somewhat vaguely. Then he laughs: “I am looking for a place where we can perform in the street and protest.”