This year the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) brings together 748 publishers and 525 book agencies from 35 countries, with some 86 publishing houses, 24 non-Egyptian, participating for the first time. A successful event so far, it was nonetheless held to a chorus of complaints about the remote location of its new venue at Egypt’s International Centre for Conferences and Fairs in Al-Tagammu, New Cairo.
Unlike the Nasr City fair grounds, which can be reached by metro, the new venue would make it inaccessible to ordinary fair-goers and rob the event of its spirit, it was argued. But within a week of its opening by President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, according to the General Egyptian Book Organisation head Haitham Al-Hag, the fair has registered more than a million visits. Al-Hag estimates that, by 5 February when it closes, the number of fair goers will have risen by 50 per cent compared to last year’s.
This is borne out by the long queues at the gate, where effective security measures are the only bottleneck. The space makes for an entirely different experience from the typical Nasr City fair, with state-of-the-art amenities and a layout that is easier to navigate as well as maps, volunteer ushers, coffee shops and conveniences.
According to Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem (speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly), thanks to the Ministry of Defence, the Cairo governorate, EgyptAir, and the Ministry of Transportation (which has transported visitors to the new venue), Egypt now has a book fair of international standards: “The 50th round of the fair has seen a concrete leap in preparations despite the transportation challenge. However, the tremendous efforts that the organisers have exerted have led to results.”
Not everyone is enthusiastic about the change. Ahmed Farouk, a student to whom the Nasr City fair grounds hold childhood memories of the fair as a family outing, feels “the old atmosphere is lost.” Like Mona Shawki, a teacher, he found the prices a little too steep for his budget. But according to George Damyan, the owner of University Print House in Alexandria, this is partly due to a nearly 70 per cent increase in fair pavilions rent price: LE1,000 per metre for a 36 metre space in addition to insurance and transportation costs.
The location hasn’t helped, Damyan feels: the long journey discourages people from spending as much time at the fair and from buying books they will have to carry home. “Until last year I used to break even on the first day of the fair, this year I don’t think it’ll happen until the end.”
Yet booksellers like Raouf Asham, who represents Madbouly Bookshop, are pleased with the turnout. Kalimat agency director Islam Hosni feels this is the best fair he has seen since first participating in 2006, with the pavilions fairly distributed among Publishers Union members and a world-class venue compared to “the usual mess of tattered tents and unclean cafeterias”. For Salwa Mourad, an accountant, the new venue was a relief since it provides a book lover with a hassle-free environment and better company. Ahmed Abdou, a waiter who works at the fair, says business has been better and more pleasant at the new venue.
One highlight this year is the pavilion of the Cultural Palaces Authority, which has drawn the audience with its low prices (LE2.5-25) and valuable titles, notably the Dhakirat Al-Kitaba (or Memory of Writing) series of books.
Another is the Arab League guest-of-honour presentation, which offers books, archives and, notably, three large volumes of rare historical photos featuring such Arab leaders as King Farouk with King Abdul-Aziz Al-Saud and Arab League secretaries like Al-Shazly Al-Qaliby and Esmat Abdel-Meguid on the day the League relocated from Cairo to Tunisia. Under the slogan “A Book for Every Visitor”, every visitor to the pavilion of the Arab League is given a free book of their choice.
One hall is dedicated to telling the story of the fair through documentary materials and photographs featuring intellectuals, authors, poets and public figures who have participated in the fair over its 50-year history. Author Soheir Al-Qalamawi and culture minister Tharwat Okasha, who set up the fair at its first venue in Gezira in 1969, are being commemorated. So are such literary figures as Mohamed Abdou, Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Hussein and Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi. According to Al-Hag, there are also celebrations of the 1,050th anniversary of the foundation of Cairo, the centenary of the 1919 Revolution and the 150th anniversary.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 29 January, 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Brave new fair