It was only 12 noon when Cairo International Book Fair’s ticket booth surprisingly did open – and on time. Bewildered, a small crowd gathered at the door.
Last year, one of the largest book fairs in the Middle East, the Cairo International Book Fair was cancelled due to the eruption of a revolution that left thousands dead and maimed; ousted a 30-year-long president and ushered in a year of struggle and democracy.
Overall, however, the fear that the fair wouldn’t open or would open late was laid to rest: people eagerly lined up despite the uncertainty about the opening day.
With particularly deterring weather, heavy winds and expected rain, there is – to boot – the legacy of the VIP day: the first day of the fair was exclusively by invitation-only.
But not today, to many happy people's surprise.
The greatest cultural event of the year was obviously hastily planned and had to overcome major issues: all the buildings have been removed during the restructuring plans of the previous regime, and make-shift tents were used instead of the traditional display halls.
The organisers apparently tried to maintain the publisher’s usual turf: Al-Ahram hall, for example, was replaced by a tent exactly where the building traditionally was.
Terrible weather in one of the windiest spots in the city invaded the tents: sand and dust flooded the halls and affected books. Some shelves looked like they've been standing there for ages when it's only this morning they were set up and the books put on display. This was the most disturbing to visitors, who had to handle battered books and survive the unpaved roads piled with sand on their way to the halls.
The luckiest group in the fair is probably the used books sales group, known as Azbakeya Wall area. Sellers in this area used to get a spot of land and had to setup their own tables and shelves etc. Even worse, they had no roof. A step up from last year is that the used book salesmen are now housed under a tent.
For various reasons, publishers were only allowed to start setting up the day before the fair. Nearly half of the booths were still bustling: setting up shelves, putting books in place, opening boxes and even carrying books into the halls. Many booths remained completely empty, without even a sign to indicate the company name.
The condition of the displays of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) - responsible for organising the fair - was surprising. None of their three locations were up and running: two had books lying in boxes everywhere with workers still delivering books and opening boxes, and one was completely empty.
The Cultural Café tent was in place, this time approximately twice the size of the ones from the past, expecting larger crowds and more lively events. However, no one knew the programme. In fact, the agenda that was distributed listed neither dates nor times of events, only titles and guest names. "We're supposed to have a book signing event tomorrow or so, but I just heard that it was cancelled and the new date has not yet been decided," the team from Al-Ain publishing noted.
And to many intellectuals relief, the café attached to it was also there. Historically, this tea-and-coffee-spot has been the birthplace of demonstrations and intellectual discussions. Near lunchtime, it already witnessed some action on the first day.
Aside from the setup and weather, the publishers - particularly Arab publishers - were grateful it actually took place. From Palestine, the Ministry of Culture booth was still under construction, but the team handling it was very glad to be in Egypt: "We were very disappointed with the fair’s cancellation last year, and very happy it took place eventually."
Daniel Othman from the Syrian Writers Union was disturbed by the few racks and their poor condition; he had to go around borrowing pieces from here and there.
"We didn't notice any difference in the procedures for bringing books over versus previous years," he stated.
So far, there has been no news of any banning or publishers having trouble shipping in their books.
Another fear that will stick in peoples’ minds during the next couple of days is that the fair will be cut short due to the anniversary of Egypt’s revolution on 25 January. This fear was murmured among most publishers, although it didn't seem to stop anyone from setting up this early. "We plan to be in Tahrir Square on the 25th," a Yemeni publisher explained, delighted that they will take part in such grand event.
"Last year's fair shouldn't have been cancelled," explained the manager of the Centre for Arab Unity Studies based in Lebanon. "We held book fairs despite the Israeli attack on Lebanon and the revolution shouldn't be a reason to cancel the fair."
"This year's fair will be much better; people will be interested in reading about the events and about everything going on in the region and understand better," the team from Palestine explained.
Sales started even before the fair opened at the Centre for Arab Unity Studies; apparently publishers were keen to explore each others' work. Some of the little-known titles published years ago are likely to attract attention, particularly books about politics and history.
The Yemeni bookstore managed by Abdel-Alim Al-Hazmy, was one of only three Yemeni booths in the fair, and they were very optimistic to cover last year's losses and meet the new Egyptian crowd that is eager to learn about the Yemeni experience.
Across the board, there were high expectations as to what the fair can achieve this year, considering it overlaps with the anniversary of Egypt’s January 25 Revolution.
The eager anticipation is mixed with optimistic outlook from the first few hours of the fair, and the coming days are likely to witness a cultural festival one way or another.