It only takes a minute passing in front of the fair grounds to know that this year's book fair is almost over: papers are strewn all over the ground, along with advertisements, flyers and maps of the place. The ticket booths are mostly empty even though it's only midday.
Unfortunately, this year's fair has only attracted a small fraction of the visitors that have come in previous years. Explanations vary, meanwhile, as to why the fair has fallen so short of everyone's expectations this time around.
"We were expecting a large crowd, especially on Friday, but with all the other events taking place, there are hardly enough visitors – even during the holidays," Sherif, from the Egyptian-American Book Centre, explained. With a focus on high-end English-language books, the centre seemed to have suffered considerably this year.
For Sherif Bakr, owner of the Arabi publishing and distribution company, advertising for the fair was insufficient, with most people unaware that it had even begun. Under the former regime of ousted president Hosni Mubarak, the fair had been practically the only event of interest during the mid-year school vacation, with the former president typically attending the opening – something that did not happen this year.
A lack of organisation
Publishers and visitors agreed that efforts made by the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) to turn the fairgrounds into a proper book exhibition were enormous. Buildings situated on the fairgrounds were alllevelled. Rumour has it that the previous regime had intended to sell the land and restructure the place, which now bristles with newly-erected tents.
With the typically warm Egyptian winter, nobody expected rain or dust – but both left so many books in poor condition that the GEBO requested compensation.
"We haven't seen a single official passing by to check on things," said Latifa Al-Fahd from Kuwait University Publishing. She complained that the condition of the halls had deteriorated, noting that she had lodged several complaints with the organisers in this regard but received no response.
The poor condition of the tents and shelves left many publishers unable to display their wares. In many cases, they simply resorted to piling books on the floor as the safest option. "We say this every year, but nothing seems to change," said Sherif.
"A lack of information among visitors led many people to entirely miss our hall," Mohamed Shawky from the Bloomsbury Qatar publishing housed said.
The complaint that the fair failed to cover its expenses was voiced by all the publishers and used book sellers that participated in the event. "It cost LE1,000 per day just to rent this spot," complained one seller of used books. With an average book price of around LE10, participants needed enormous sales simply to break even.
The other problem that emerged for publishers was the missing Arab and international mass-purchasing – something that different people attributed to different reasons.
Haytham Fade, from the Moroccan House publishing company, said that the main reason was Egypt's current security situation. Mamdouh, manager of the Academic Bookshop, and Arabi's Bakr, said it was a punishment for Egypt spearheaded by Gulf countries fearing the export of Egypt's recent revolution.
Mass purchasing represented some 50 per cent of sales for some publishers, and for others much more – mostly libraries and research institutions in Arab countries, along with foreign bookstores and publishers looking for translations or publishing rights. The extent of the loss is hard to calculate, but the near-empty shelves only days before the end of the fair – coupled with closed boxes sitting next to sad-looking publishers – spoke volumes.
The only exceptions were the managers of the Saudi wing, who said they had been highly successful. According to Omar Al-Rashid, spokesman for Saudi cultural relations at the fair, they received some 15,000 visitors per day in the 400-square-metre wing that included over 100 organisations, publishers and public entities.
Beyond the fair
It was an eventful time in Egypt when the fair was running, but this, unfortunately, was due to things unrelated to books or culture. Although some worried that 25 January might trigger a new round of clashes, this fortunately wasn't the case. Last week's football violence in Port Said, however, sparked a whole new raft of worries among fair organisers and visitors.
"Sometimes I worry that I won't be able to get back home at night," said one assistant carrying books around the fair and who lives not far from downtown Cairo. This comes in light of ongoing instability all over the country, with daily reported thefts and harassment.
But that's not all. Recent events in Tahrir Square have attracted much of the political class that represents the typical fair audience: youth, intellectuals, and those unafraid to leave home. Fairgoers in the past used to regard the event as an opportunity to protest openly and meet other intellectuals in an open and free space. Today, however, there are no restrictions on any of these activities, allowing the fair to be a strictly cultural event, still finding its feet in the wake of last year's revolution.
Other than the limited number of visitors, economic conditions also seemed to have played a role. Publishers were forced to increase prices in response to increasing paper and shipment costs, not only because of inflation in general, but also due to the deterioration of the Egyptian pound vis-a-vis other currencies.
At Azbakeya Wall in downtown Cairo, where prices seldom change, the explanation was a little different: people are saving for the future, and book-reading simply isn't a priority. Not only individuals, but even public universities and libraries, said Mamdouh from the Academic Bookshop, had restrictions on how much money they could spend and on which titles they could purchase.
Not that bad
Things don't look so bad from the visitors' perspective, however. With the diversity of material on display, everyone found something: young children found colouring books or computer games; university students found cheap reference books; and parents found books on religion and cooking (the two subjects most in demand at the fair, according to publishers and visitors). Everyone, meanwhile, had a chance to spend a day in the sun with food and drinks available everywhere.
"The cultural program was a sea change," Bakr said. In addition to the change in guests and topics, the fair also featured movies, musical performances and other cultural activities. "It wasmarvellousthat the program was available online, which allowed even more people to find out what was going on if they wished."
People of different backgrounds were there: religions families, students, librarians, teachers and others. "We don't even have to buy anything, sometimes due to prices, but we still enjoyed it," one school student said. Another visitor complained that advertising for the event was insufficient, saying she only found out about the fair by chance. Another student complained that she had trouble finding what she needed because the locations had changed; that there were no maps available anywhere to indicate which publishers were located where.
"The visitor has changed for sure," Mahmoud from Dar Al-Shorouk explained. "The visitor is today looking for books about the revolution and for specific authors, not just any books." Mohamed Khedr from the same publisher explained that there was a high demand for books on political Islam and Islamic thought.
As the last day of Egypt's first post-revolution book fair draws to a close, piles of books and boxes are carried away. Trucks laden with books head for their second stop: Morocco's Rabat book fair. Everyone carries a little hope that, despite everything, it was better to hold the fair despite continued concerns about the possible future scenarios awaiting Egypt's cultural scene.