The 2015 Cairo International Book Fair runs from January 28 to February 12. Here, writers Ahmed Naji, Habiba Effat and Lara El Gibaly report on their day-long book hunt there.
I covered the book fair regularly from 2003 until the fair was suspended in 2011 because of Police Day and the January 25 revolution. The fair was then moved to the General Egyptian Book Organization premises in Faisal, where it was held on a smaller scale. I never covered it afterward, but made short visits to buy the latest releases by Arab publishing houses. Most titles on display are available elsewhere in bookstores, except for books published in other Arab countries, which are difficult to get your hands on because of custom laws that impede the movement of books between Arab nations.
This year’s visit came at the invitation of friends from the Mada team, who invited me to a day of competitive book hunting, which I accepted.
From my impressions, there’s been a real leap in the publishing industry in Egypt over the past few years, and its effect is clearly visible in this year’s book fair. There’s a growth in readership, which isn’t only apparent in the number of visitors (which are massive this time around) but also reflected in an increase in sales in the fair’s pavilions, and a change in the layout of publishing houses in the fairgrounds. As a result, it took Lara and Habiba over an hour of crowding toward electronic gates among thousands of visitors to get in, while I snuck in through the publishers’ gate using my Journalists Syndicate ID.
Publishing houses that stood out in past years — independent publishers and those outside of the official context of mainstream publishing — have now become part of the industry, moving from occupying a few meager meters to having main pavilions of their own. An example is Merit publishing, which has a prime location this year, overlooking the main pathway across from the culture cafe. Some of its most prominent new titles include Al 7ala Sifr (A Zero State), the first novel by Egyptian poet Emad Fouad; 7ob El Romman (Pomegranate Love) by Samaa Zeidan, and Bar Om El Kheir (Om El Kheir’s Bar) by Mohamed Dawood.
In the larger pavilions, new publishers have left a strong imprint on the industry, including Al-Rabea al-Arabi, which appeared directly after the revolution and struggled for years until getting its own large wing this year. It offered several interesting titles, most prominently an Arabic translation of Martin Amis’ Time’s Arrow (1991) as well as a translation of one of Sigmund Freud’s book on Leonardo da Vinci.
Al-Rabea has instigated a sort of mini-revolution in book cover design this year, introducing bold and unorthodox designs to the Arabic book market. Additionally it’s offering large discounts and deals, including an offer to buy its five bestsellers for LE100 altogether instead of LE200. Those included Period by Mohamed Metwali, Al Tayiboon (The Good People) by Adham al-Abboudi, and Ababeel (Swarms) by Sherif Abdelhadi. Al-Rabea al-Arabi is also venturing into the world of English publishing, through Loaiy Tageldin’s book, L for life, Love, and Lots in Between (originally published in 2011 by Beit al-Yasmin).
But the more visible phenomenon in this year’s fair is the sweeping presence of Egyptian colloquial Arabic poetry collections. Every publisher has at least two new collections in colloquial Arabic, while El Oloom has more than 15 new colloquial poetry collections by first-time authors. The language used almost entirely reflects colloquial Cairene, with a complete absence of Upper Egyptian, which has been the more prominent colloquial in the Egyptian poetry of recent decades. These collections include 7afi wa 7orr (Barefoot and Free) by Mahmoud Radwan, Naseeb (Fate) by Ali Mohsen and Nota Metro El Gam3a by Mostafa Abd El Shafi. The onslaught of colloquial Arabic has extended to the rest of the publishers as well: Even Diwan has printed its second edition of a collection by Egyptian actor Salah Abdallah, which carries the title Takhareef (Ramblings).
El Karma publishing has expanded this year with headquarters in two locations. In addition to its new titles, it has issued a series called “El Karma selections,” which reprints forgotten classics of Arabic literature, including Dongola by Nubian writer Idris Ali (1993), El Shabaka (The Web, 1981) by Sherif Hatata and Mellim Alakbar (Mellim the Great, 1944) by Adel Kamel.
I went in having decided not to buy anything, because the best time to buy is usually at the end of the fair, when all publishers try to get rid of their books so as not to pay for shipping them back to storehouses. But this changed as I ran into publisher friends who would give me gifts, or I found valuable books priced cheaply and knew they wouldn’t stick around till the end.
Pavilions: German “A,” German “B,” Publishers Union, El Karma Publishing House, General Egyptian Book Organization, National Center for Translation.
Favorite find: A collection of recent translations of Alain Badiou’s work, including his collaboration with Slavoj Žižek, Philosophy in the Present (2009).
Best bargain: Nazar by Mohie El Din El Labbad. This is a collection of four books that make up one of the most important references for visual art and graphic design in the second half of the 20th century (LE16).
Weirdest work: All books by Beit Al-Hekma, a publisher of Arabic translations of Chinese titles, standing alone in the middle of the grounds, far from any other publisher, manned by a young Chinese man speaking classical Arabic.
Each year, I put aside my bias against Nasr City, pull out a weathered JanSport backpack, scour through pockets for change, and head to the Cairo Fairgrounds for the momentous Cairo International Book Fair. In coordination with a few equally nerdy book-hoarders, I go over genres of potential interest, purchasing plans, bargaining tactics and the like.
Going on a weekend this year was a rookie mistake. Crowds at the entrance put music festivals to shame, and I was once again surprised by how many people show up, even if just to roam the grounds in the presence of books rather than buy any.
The fair is daunting if you don’t know where to go, with mammoth tents erected by prominent publishers chock-full of plastic-wrapped new releases. Since I consider myself too inexperienced to wade through these hangar-style warehouses of Arabic literature alone, I make my way to the back where I’m most comfortable: Soor al-Azbakeya, a second-hand treasure trove.
Here, two much less intimidating structures house pile upon pile of used books from every genre and era imaginable. Marxist manifestos are hidden beneath beat-up Paulo Coelhos, classics are wedged between gardening manuals and aging autobiographies, and booksellers eagerly point out banned texts or Italian cookbooks for cheap.
Last year’s mission was contemporary fiction and short story collections (I came home with stained James Baldwin, Raymond Carver and David Sedaris paperbacks), but this year I decided to reel back a few decades and score harder-to-find hardbacks.
A well-trained eye will allow you to skim over the abundance of romance novels and self-help manuals (the Fifty Shades trilogy had invaded nearly every stand) and get to the good stuff. While luck plays a vital role, most shelves have some kind of haphazard system that you learn to decipher.
With a bit of diligence, I discover a hefty-looking 1963 Writer’s Handbook that won me over in a few witty pages, a worn-out Jack Kerouac novel (1959), Renee Wellek and Austin Warren’s Theory of Literature (1949) and the first issue of the New American Review (1967) within the first hour and a half. Feeling confident, I shuffle to the denser part of the tent and spot a collection of musty hardbacks on an out-of-reach shelf titled The World’s Thousand Best Short Stories. Each has a geographic region engraved on the spine. I stand on a chair, pull out “American” and ask how much.
“I don’t sell them individually,” the guy says. “You buy one, you buy them all.”
I assume that 14 volumes would definitely break my budget, but before I can put on my bargaining face, he adds: “There are two missing, so they’re not worth much. You can have them for LE100.”
“One man’s trash,” I think as I hastily stuff my backpack.
The pressure of hunting diminished, I begin to revel in my favorite aspect of the fair: Dubious titles and humorous oddities. A detailed analysis of Fatal Attraction (1987), courteously made available in Arabic by the National Center of Translation, has unparalleled potential, but I’m also amused by How to Choose the Sex of Your Baby — The Revised Edition, Frustration: How Christians Can Deal with It, and a giant poster of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf complete with Nazi insignia, the back of which is being used as a sign announcing bargain prices.
A chicken shawerma later and I’m ready to be led into the General Egyptian Book Organization’s tent under the watchful eye of veteran book-fair attendee Ahmed Naji, who helps me pick out a collection of colloquial poetry by Fouad Haddad and a comparative study on traditional Egyptian tattoos. We make our way to the hippest publisher in the market, Merit, and I’m recommended Nael al-Toukhy’s Nesaa al-Karantina (The Women of Karantina, 2013), Mahmoud Tawfik’s Blue (2013), and Ramy Yehia’s poetry collection Ba’aked Gonouny (I Reaffirm My Madness, 2015).
I’m itching to check out the legendary Interior Ministry tent, which allegedly hosts a number of texts on human rights, but it’s getting dark and my shoulders are protesting. There’s always next week, though. Or tomorrow.
Pavilions: Soor al-Azbakeya, General Egyptian Book Organization, Merit.
Favorite find: The Writer’s Handbook (1967), edited by A.S. Burack.
Best bargain: 14 volumes of The World’s Thousand Best Short Stories, edited by Sir J. A. Hammerton (LE100).
Weirdest work: Al-Gazebeya al-Momeeta (Fatal Attraction), by Suzanne Leonard, trans. Abdel Maqsoud Abdel Karim.
I also begin in the dusty narrow Soor El Azbakiya passages, home of secondhand textbooks, old posters and magazines, and long-discarded novels with loving messages scrawled on their inner covers (I’m a sucker for that kind of thing).
Buying secondhand saves a tremendous amount of money but limits your choices to whatever has been regurgitated by the book market this year. It’s hit or miss. In past years I’ve unearthed gems of modern and classic fiction, but this year I wade through piles of Agatha Christies and Nicholas Sparks, pushed aside dozens of Dan Browns and Paulo Coelhos, and rejected the nagging advice of Edward De Bono and Stephen R. Covey.
Just as I’m about to despair, I get my hands on a beautiful hardcover, fittingly titled in gold lettering A Treasury of Russian Literature. This 1948 collection includes essentials like Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekov and Krylov, but also covers a selection of lesser known “–ovs” whose acquaintance I’m excited to make. Continuing to feed my passion for all things Russian (except their vodka), I pick up a Pushkin before moving on.
Next, I buy a copy of William Dalrymple’s marvelously entertaining travelogue City of Djinns, a personalized take on the history of Delhi. Although I already own a copy, this one was in good condition and well priced, so I’ll gift it to someone with as keen an interest in India. Then I come across volume 1 of the complete short stories of William Somerset Maugham, which will make an excellent gift for a friend who’s obsessed with his longer, more popular works.
I pick up a few National Geographics from the 1970s and 1980s for LE5 each (great for unconventional coffee-table browsing, and excellent fodder for collage projects), and before leaving Soor al-Azbakeya I manage to haggle H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine down to LE10.
Every year I tell myself I’ll buy and read more Arabic, so I head over to Merit’s tent. They have an excellent selection of short stories, novels and modern colloquial Arabic poetry. In the Arabic book market, where style is often subjugated to substance, Merit’s books are exceptional in that their simple eye-catching designs actually make you want to pick them up. I acquire two novels and two short story collections, including Adel Asaad al-Miri’s Kol Ahthiyati Dayikka (My Shoes are All Too Tight, 2010) which came highly recommended.
On a whim I pop into the General Egyptian Book Organization tent, and end up with two great finds: a book archiving the work of late Egyptian caricaturist Hegazy, as well as a completely out-of-place book of illustrations titled Movie Cats. It consists of paintings of cats reenacting scenes from famous films, such as Paw Prints of Arabia and The Good, the Bad and the Tabby and Cleocatra. Why the General Egyptian Book Organization thought this a worthy investment we’ll never know.
My final stop is AUC Press, where I leaf through beautiful photography, Egyptology and history books I can’t afford but enjoy looking at nonetheless. I head over the section labeled “20-70 percent discount” and talk myself into buying a few paperbacks I don’t really want. The word “discount” is alluring.
Regrettably, I didn’t have the chance to pass by the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop, who generally have excellent foreign fiction, or Shorouk publishers, whose tastes have been deteriorating over the past few years but are still an essential stop if you’re looking for well-illustrated children’s or coloring books.
Pavilions: Soor al-Azbakeya, Merit, AUC Press.
Favorite find: A Treasury of Russian Literature, edited by Bernard Guilbert Guerney (1948).
Best bargain: Being Abbas El Abd by Ahmed Alaidy, AUC Press 2006, (LE5).
Weirdest work: Not entirely sure what this is, but the title is Arabic for “Rainbow” and the cover design is priceless.