History and music enveloped the participants at the American University in Cairo Press Book Festival on Sunday 27 May. A crowd of foreigners, academics and writers, among others took in the golden-era beauty and breathed the history of the locale, Beit Al-Umma.
Beit Al Umma (House of the Nation) is, indeed, a location reminiscent of Egypt's golden past, much remembered these days, since it was once the residence of the legendary Saad Zaghloul (1858-1927), the leader of Egypt's 1919 revolution against British occupation. He also headed Al-Wafd party and successfully united Egyptians against the occupier.
Well-maintained with the furniture, frames and feel of the grand homes of the time, it is now used for special events as both a museum and venue for cultural activities.
Continuing AUC Press' tradition of holding its events in special settings, Beit Al-Umma symbolises the 1919 revolution; an appropriate place to celebrate the first fruits of the new, 2011 revolution. A thought that wasn't expressly uttered by the publishing house, but everyone was mindful of was the link celebrating a historical leader as Egyptians are taking the large, wobbly steps towards electing their post-revolution president.
Adding to the flavour of the evening was a band playing Om Kalthoum songs, first becoming the centre of attention on the stage, then quickly fading into the background of the chatter and friendly conversations among the guests.
The new AUC Press director, Nigel Fletcher-Jones, greeted the guests and the writers who are being celebrated today with their new books: Hani Shukrallah was signing his most recent publication, Egypt, the Arabs and the World; as was Samia Mehrez, Translating Egypt's Revolution: The Language of Tahrir; Ashraf Khalil was celebrating his book Liberation Square and Kamal Ruhayyim was signing his book Days in the Diaspora.
Among the guests were also other AUC Press authors, including Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, winner of the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, and Mahmoud El-Wardani, author of Heads Ripe for Plucking. Mohamed Hashim, owner and manager of Dar Merit publishing was also present, as well as a host of AUC professors, journalists and public.
A surprise guest was the world-renowned long-time former Minister of State for Archaeology and head of the Supreme Council for Archaeology, Zahi Hawass, after a long break from the public scene after Mubarak was ousted. Hawass also published a number of books on Egyptology through the AUC Press, including Life in Paradise: The Noble Tombs of Thebes, and Royal Tombs of Egypt.
Fletcher-Jones was just appointed to AUC Press in April and already has some interesting plans: digital publishing will be a primary focus, as he already announced, and he will also explore other expansion opportunities within the Egyptian publishing world. The 50-year old publishing business of AUC Press has been famous for translating Arabic fiction and classics, most famous of which is the Naguib Mahfouz collection, but also publishing special books and research about Egypt and the Arab world for selected writers.
Fletcher-Jones holds his Ph.D. in biological anthropology from Durham University. He comes with an extensive professional background in publishing with major houses, including Elsevier and Blackwell Publishing Inc., with a focus on sciences and journals. He indicated in his welcome to AUC Press his interest in expanding the publishing to reflect AUC's research and teaching excellence.