What struck me immediately when I visited this year’s Cairo International Book Fair— its 49th edition — is the enormous progress this event has made in the last year alone. It has truly become an unrivalled cultural beacon in the country. How starkly the ambit of its rays contrast with the dismal state of the book fair during the years of upheaval when its organisers were in near despair. Indeed, I will go so far as to say that the book fair, today, has become the primary hub of cultural dissemination in the Arab region.
I have visited all Arab book fairs without exception over the years. I have had the honour to participate in many of the major cultural activities that have abound throughout the Arab region in recent years. But nowhere have I seen the degree of diversity and appeal that characterises the Cairo International Book Fair.
No other book fair attracts those millions of people. Last year’s book fair drew four million visitors — more than the population of some member states in the UN. It looks like the number of visitors this year will be considerably higher. As I write this, which is still in the early days of the event, the number of visitors has already exceeded 1,750,000, which is 25 per cent higher than it was at the same point in last year’s fair. In this regard, alone, the Cairo Book Fair surpasses all major book fairs in the West, such as those in Frankfurt, London and Turin.
I have visited and sometimes actively participated in these and other fairs. I have also been invited as a guest of honour in some, such as the Montreal Book Fair which is one of the most important book fairs in North America. Many of these events (such as that in Frankfurt) are geared to specialists and are visited primarily by publishers keen to familiarise themselves with the latest publications and to acquire publishing or translation rights. The Cairo International Book Fair, by contrast, targets the general reading public as well.
The numbers of non-specialists who visit the exhibition grounds far outstrips number of publishers, not only because of the opportunity to purchase books at reduced prices but also because of the many cultural events that take place there. Every year, people look forward to the diverse intellectual seminars that the book fair organises, the likes of which are rarely found in other book fairs.
This year’s edition of the book fair made enormous strides in all these respects. The number of sections has risen to 1,200, featuring the works produced by some 850 Egyptian, Arab and foreign publishers. The number of cultural activities has also increased. Of particular note, this year, are the arts pavilion and the open-air theatre with performances throughout the day.
But what impressed me, above all, was the children’s pavilion which occupies 2,000 m2 of the exhibition grounds. In addition to the hundreds of books for children that are on display, as is the case every year, there are dozens of cultural and artistic activities for children: drawing and painting classes, games, pottery workshops as well as live theatrical performances. Never has such a degree of attention been devoted to children in previous editions of the book fair.
I also took a long pause at the Halayeb and Shalateen section which, in another first for the book fair’s public, featured an exhibit of the arts and crafts of that area in Egypt’s southeast corner that we constantly describe as an integral and inseparable part of the nation but rarely try to familiarise ourselves with its unique indigenous folk arts. I took another long pause in the 2,000 m2 section that the event organisers had allocated to Al-Azhar, perhaps in the hope that the space would be used for the dissemination of religious enlightenment and contributions to the modernisation of religious discourse, an effort in which Al-Azhar continues to remains remiss.
What truly impressed me was the number of volunteer youths at this year’s event. About 500 young men and women, mostly university students, have volunteered to act as guides in the various pavilions, or to help the book fair administrators with publicity-related tasks or, in the case of the young volunteer artists, to offer Arabic calligraphy lessons to visitors.
This year’s event has also devoted considerable attention to youth. In the next few days there will be a youth initiatives contest in which handsome financial prizes will be awarded to the most successful initiatives in culture, the arts and technology.
It is important, here, to pause and give thanks to the team of people who had begun to prepare for this year’s edition since the end of last year’s fair. In particular, our gratitude should go to Haytham Al-Hagg Ali, director of the General Egyptian Book Organisation that is responsible for organising this annual event. I know how busy he has been during the past few months preparing for this fair.
To him, too, goes the credit for many of the ideas that were carried out successfully and that helped make this year’s edition so unique. Nor should we overlook the supervision and care shown by former culture minister Helmi Al-Namnam, whose efforts to overcome all obstacles made it possible for this year’s fair to attain such superior standards.
All this makes us look forward to next year’s fair which will undoubtedly be very special as it will be organised under the supervision of current Minister of Culture Ines Abdel-Dayem who is noted for her sophisticated cultural vision and her administrative acumen. Next year’s edition will mark the 50th anniversary of the Cairo International Book Fair, which was first launched under the supervision of Soheir Al-Qalamawi.
The exhibition grounds on which that fair stood are now home to the Cairo Opera House that was most successfully managed by Inas Abdel-Dayem. Therefore, we anticipate that next year’s fair will reach an even greater peak of success, which is why preparations for it should begin now, not just locally or at the Arab level, but also at the international level.
*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly