It was 2005 when US Embassy in Cairo last participated in the Cairo International Book Fair. This makes its return to one of the most prestigious and celebrated cultural events in Egypt for that event’s golden jubilee an occasion to celebrate. Without explaining the 14-year absence Dorothy Shea, the Deputy Chief of the US Mission in Cairo, says “the important message is that we are back. And we are happy to be here again”.
The US Embassy booth at the fair showcases some of the most recent and the most significant titles of one of its oldest initiatives, The Cairo Arabic Book Program, which aims to publish a verity of American books in Arabic in cooperation with Egyptian publishing houses. “In this small booth we have some of the best selling books in the US together with some of my favourite books in my childhood in Arabic,” Shea explains. “We hope there is a little bit of something for everybody. It is very hard in one booth to have everything but hopefully it will peak everyone’s interest and then they start looking for some more books.”
To mark Black History Month, Shea highlights The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr, which is available in Arabic among other books about inspiring African-American role models: “Martin Luther King is so dear to Americans, and we are so proud of the legacy that he left behind. We love to share that with the Egyptian audience. I would say culture is one of the pillars of the strong and deep partnership between US and Egypt. The fact that we are here is a testament of the importance that we attach to culture as one of the really foundational elements of our relationship. Generally speaking, as good as we do we can do better, and as hard as we work we can work harder.”
According to John Ragheb, the Manager of the Cairo Arabic Book Program, thousands of books are translated under the umbrella of this programme in the fields of literature, politics, business, self-help and so on: “In collaboration with selected local publishing houses, we support the translation, obtain the copyrights, support and supervise the publishing of the books, then we buy 1,000 out of 3,000 copies of each book to be distributed locally to the libraries and academic institutions and regionally to other embassies in the Middle East”.
The Cairo International book fair is a unique opportunity to promote the programme to the Egyptian audience and offer the books at reasonable prices: “We have many books which are concerned with American culture, but there are also books that are more attractive to local readers such as those on business, literature, entrepreneurship, in addition to children’s books. We try to strike a balance between the interests of Egyptian readers and the need to representAmerican history and culture in one place”.
US Embassy Spokesperson Sam Werberg describes the programme as a unique initiative that serves the entire region: “Those publications are also showcased in the local market through their publishing houses, so they are not only distributed by the embassy but are available in the bookshops and in the other booths of the publishing housed in the book fair. It is still always good to have them all in one place like the US Embassy booth. Although we have only books this time, for future rounds of the book fair there will be a full programme of cultural activities.”
According to Ruth Anne Stevens-Klitz, the US Cultural Attaché in Cairo, the original plan of the US Embassy’s return to the book fair was to organise different cultural activities parallel to showcasing the productions of the Arabic Book Program, but because of the US government shutdown which ended four days after the opening of the fair, the only part of the programme that could be implemented was showcasing the books. “A lot of the things we’d planned to do were cancelled. But we already had our booth out there so it was easy to come back as soon as the government was open again. Establishing a presence out here is a big priority for me since I arrived in Egypt and we have the support of the embassy to make it happen.”
The programme is especially important, she says, for the quality of the books: “There are a lot of American books on the Egyptian market, especially novels, and that is great. But we also want to make sure that there are books that tell more of the American story. It is not necessarily something that the commercial publisher will choose to translate and publish. But it is an important part of our story that we want to make sure the Egyptian audience know about.” This is part of a wider initiative aimed at mutual understanding and intercultural dialogue “Through cultural diplomacy which serves both Americans and Egyptians, we want to make sure American citizens have a well developed picture of Egypt and the Egyptian audience has good access to American culture as well. The fair this year is huge and it is also the biggest cultural event of the year for the Egyptians. It is amazing that the biggest cultural event of the year in Egypt is about books and reading.”
Highlights of the Cairo Arabic Book Program include Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Power by the Turkish-American MIT economist Daron Acemoglu and the Harvard political scientist James Robinson, the contemporary classic Democracy in America by Alexis Tocqueville, Jonathan Ive: The Genius Behind Apple’s Greatest Products by bestselling tech author Leander Kahney (published in Arabic by Al-Karama), Thinking, Fast and Slow by psychologist-economist Daniel Kahneman (published by Kalimat Arabia), Babbitt, the 1922 satire of industrial city life that was won Sinclair Lewis a Nobel Prize (published by Dar Al-Tanwir) and the science fiction classic Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (published by Dar El Sherouk).
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: America in Arabic