The 54th of Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF, 25 January-6 February) opens on Thursday 26 January amid the concerns of publishers about the economic crunch and the increase in book prices. Open daily from 10 am till 9 pm at the International Exhibition Centre in New Cairo, the event benefits from the cooperation of the Cairo Transport Authority which facilitates the process of reaching the fair, providing them with seven bus lines from various stops covering greater Cairo.
Inaugurated in 1969, with an estimated two million guests annually, the fair is the largest and one of the oldest in the Arab world. Prior it moved to its present, better equipped venue in 2019, it was held at the Cairo International Fair Zone at Nasr City.
This year, with Kamel Kilani as the children’s personality of the year and Jordan as the guest of honour, the event is being held under the slogan “In the Name of Egypt” after the long poem by vernacular poet, screenwriter and cartoonist Salah Jaheen (1930-1986), to whom the whole round is dedicated.
Jaheen, who hailed from a middle-class Shoubra family studied law at Cairo University, started out as a cartoonist in the weekly magazine Rose Al-Youssef, in 1955. He moved to its sister magazine Sabah Al-Kheir the following year, becoming its editor-in-chief and eventually also joined Al-Ahram Newspaper.
Known for its simple words and powerful impact, Jaheen’s poetry is exemplified in Al-Robaayat (or The Quatrains) and Ala Esm Masr (In the Name of Egypt, 1971), an epic that narrates the history of Egypt from Pharaonic times to the moment of writing. Known as “the poet of the revolution” Jaheen’s provided the lyrics to numerous patriotic songs celebrating the 1952 Revolution and its leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser. He collaborated with the legendary singer Abdel-Halim Hafez and composer Kamal Al-Taweel on such songs as Soura (Photo), Ehna Al-Shaab (We Are the People), Khali Al-Selah Sahy (Oh Weapon, Be Ready), Ya Ahlan Bel Maarek (Welcome Battles) and Al-Masoulia (Responsibility). But with Egypt’s defeat in 1967 and Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s death in 1970, Jaheen suffered from severe depression. He is widely seen as one of the greatest Egyptian Arabic poets, together with Fouad Haddad, Abdel-Rahman Al-Abnoudi and Sayed Higab. He and the last two called themselves the Ibn Arous Band, in reference to the mythical Upper Egyptian bard.
He wrote puppet theatre plays like the legendary Al-Leila Al-Kebeira (The Grand Night), as well as the landmark film Khali Balak Men Zouzou (Take Care of Zouzou, 1972), starring the late Souad Hosny, which was in theatres for over a year. He also wrote the 1978 film based on a folk ballad of the same name that dates to the time of the construction of the Suez Canal. He was awarded a First Class Egyptian Order of Science and Arts in 1965.
This year the book fair brings together more than 700 publishers. A nine-month payment plan is available to book buyers to help with the economic crunch. An initiative called Culture and Arts for Everyone provides books at LE2-20 as well. Many publisher have concerns about the revenue they might expect, however. Karam Youssef, the head of Al-Kotob Khan publishing house says, “I don’t have high hopes for this year’s round of the book fair, as it coincides with very harsh economic circumstances, circumstances we haven’t faced for a very long time – there are the usual discounts, sometimes is up to 70 per cent, that we give on previous publications.
“This is a chance for the reader to be involved in a larger dialogue with the publishing process as a whole and the industry as a whole. A lot of readers don’t know anything about that complicated process and its stages, why book prices are soaring, and one reason is that we don’t really own anything in this process except for the content of the book
“Of course the readers’ budgets will vary, but I believe that some might not be able to buy more than five books instead of 20 or 30 and that means that the reader will choose wisely according to his or her preferences and interests. The advantage of this is that the visitor of the Book Fair will go specifically to his real interests or his favourite writers.”
Youssef concluded that she hoped she would be proven wrong about the purchasing power of book fair visitors.
Fatma Al-Boudy, the head of Al-Ain Publishing house, shares Youssef’s concerns: “Every time we had concerns about the book fair, it eventually turned out to be fine. Hopefully this year will be the same. But of course as publishers, this year is very worrying. We decided to decrease our profit margin for the benefit of the reader and we also increased our discounts with some reaching 60 per cent on the previous publications versus 40-50 per cent in previous years, but this still means that this year the average price might be LE150 as opposed to LE70 last year.”
President of the Egyptian Publishers Union Mohamed Rashad said at the press conference last week that publishers are committed to discounts of up to 80 per cent and added that students and people with special needs will be offered special packages.
As for the foreign publishers like Khaled Al-Nasri, the head of the Milan-based Al-Mutawaset Publishing house, “we really don’t have any expectations amid this financial crunch, we plan to stick to last year’s prices and in some cases we have a discount that might reach 65 per cent.”
Explaining the increase of paper prices, Ahmed Sultan, owner of a print press says, “Paper prices went up by nearly 300 per cent, as Egypt imports paper mainly from China and Europe.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 January, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.