Azbakeya book market: A look at Cairo's other book fair

Zeinab El-Gundy , Tuesday 11 Feb 2020

Ahram Online pays a visit to Cairo's oldest secondhand book market, in the heart of Downtown Cairo

Al-Azabekya book market of Cairo
Inside Cairo’s Al-Azabekya book market in heart of Cairo’s Downtown (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

On a Saturday last month, students Dina and Mai finished their mid-year exams at Cairo University and headed to the metro, on their way to the hustle and bustle of Downtown Cairo to buy some books.

The young women, both enrolled in the English section of the university’s Faculty of Arts, wanted to buy books in English at reasonable prices, and they knew there is no better place to find books at such prices in Cairo than “Souq Soor Al-Azbakeya” or the Al-Azbakeya wall book market” – commonly known as Azbakeya market in English.

“We came here because the prices are better than in the bookstores,” Dina told Ahram Online while holding up a novel in English she had picked up from one of the many book stalls.

“This book is sold here for EGP 15, while outside in the bookstores it is sold for EGP 50 or EGP 100,” she added.

For her friend Mai, who is a Japanese manga and anime fan, Azbakeya is the place to find treasures.

“Even the comic books are sold for cheaper prices; comic books are sold here for EGP 30 at most, while they are sold in big chains for EGP 150,” she said.

Al-Azabekya book market
Young students in Al-Azabekya book market during the second edition of annual book fair (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

Dina and Mai also came on that Saturday to enjoy the discounts available at the popular market during its second annual book fair, held this year from 15 January to 15 February.

Book stall owner Mr. Bazara told Ahram Online that the comic business is booming at present, as young people in Cairo are particularly interested in the genre after the wave of films based on Marvel and DC comics, and especially following the huge success of DC’s movie Joker last year.

“Joker comics are sold for EGP 20 and EGP 25. There is higher demand for the Joker than the regular Batman comics, which are sold for only EGP 15, because of his film,” he told Ahram Online.

Azbakeya market doesn’t only attract fans of comics or English novels; all sorts of book lovers and book-seekers can be found in the narrow outdoor market.

Mothers come with their children to buy old National Geographic children’s magazines in Arabic and books about animals and ancient Egypt, for the kids to read in the mid-year vacation.

Al-Azabekya book market
New editions of books by famous old Egyptian authors sold at Al-Azabekya book market during the second edition of its annual book fair (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

Educational books for all stages from kindergarten and up, in both Arabic and English, sold for half the normal price, have a whole section in the crowded market.

Middle-aged women come also, searching for the old German Burda sewing magazines, while men can be found looking for old Islamic heritage books, with their distinctive hard covers. 

“We have customers of all ages coming to the market, asking for all sort of books at better prices, during this time of the year,” book stall owner Khaled Hashem told Ahram Online while fielding enquiries from a group of customers.

Al-Azabekya book market
Educational books in English sold in Al-Azbekya book market during the second edition of its annual book fair (Photo:Zeinab El Gundy)

There are no real figures available on visits to the famous market during its book fair season, but the vendors say sales are booming.

The book fair is a recent addition; for decades, the Azbakeya vendors had a section at the Cairo International Book Fair, and it had become a favourite part of Egypt’s biggest and most popular annual cultural event, just like the book signings and lectures and discussions from intellectuals.

But when the event’s administrators decided to transfer the book festival from its famous location in Nasr City to a new location in New Cairo last year, the Azbakeya book vendors decided to boycott it.

“Last year we did not participate in the book fair, as it has become no place for old books anymore,” said Harbi Hassab, one of the oldest book stall owners and vendors in the market.

“The administration of the fair ask for a really high price as rent for a single stall --  EGP 1,000 per day, plus another EGP 1,000 to transfer books from Downtown Cairo to the new location, while my revenues come from books I sell for EGP 5 or EGP 10, or at most EGP 15,at the fair,” Hassab explained.

Al-Azabekya book market
A customer and a books-vendor searching a book inside a book stall at Al-Azabekya book market (Photo:Zeinab El-Gundy)

“I can’t transfer the big, old volumes that are sold here for EGP 50 and EGP 100, as the customers will say that this is expensive and it is not Azbakeya book market anymore. That’s why we stayed here [in the market], to meet all the demands with all sorts of genres and prices,” he added.

It was this decision that prompted the idea that the famous market should hold its own book fair.

It was not the first time; it also happened during the January 2011 revolution, but only for a week, when the international book fair was cancelled and the Azbakeya book vendors found themselves with a stock of books they had to sell, despite the ongoing protests.

But in 2019 things were different, as there was a degree of social stability, and the event needed a bigger organising effort.

According to Hassab, who inherited his stall from his father and grandfather, the 110 book stall owners selected a committee of ten people to organise the fair.

“Young people from the market used social media to promote the fair. They launched a Facebook page under the name of Azbakeya book market to promote it, and this is how the word spread,” he said.

The fair was very successful, and customers asked that it be organised twice annually.

“It will be hard to have it twice and so we decided to have it once during the mid-year vacation,” said Hassab, who rejects the notion that the fair is a parallel to the Cairo International Book Fair.

“We are originally a secondhand book market; we do not compete with the international book fair, where countries and huge publishing houses participate,” he told Ahram Online, adding that the Azbakeya customer is different to the usual international book fair customer. 

The feud with the main fair is already in the past, according to Hassab, and this year there were 40 book vendors from the Azbakeya market and other secondhand book markets who participated in the main fair in New Cairo.

A history of Egypt’s oldest secondhand book market

The book market is located in the heart of Downtown Cairo, beside the 19th century Azbakeya gardens, between Attaba Square and Opera Square.

It can’t be reached by car; you have get there from the street, pushing your way on foot through the street vendors selling everything you can imagine; or by metro, exiting Attaba station into the area and looking for the three parallel rows of small wooden stalls that make up the market.

According to Harbi Hassab, the market dates back over a hundred years.

“It started in 1907 during the era of Khedive Abbas Helmi II, when the street vendors selling books used to roam Downtown Cairo cafes with their books. They found a place to rest during the siesta hours of the cafes in hot summer days by the walls of the famous Azbakeya gardens,” he told Ahram Online.

“People began to show up then and buy books from the vendors during the siesta hour and beyond, so the vendors found they could sell their books there easily, without moving around, and they started to hang the books on a rope tied to the gardens’ walls, and it became a market,” Hassab recounted.

Harbi Hassab , one of the veteran book vendors in Al-Azabekya book market (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

“Egyptians turn crises into something good and innovative when they solve them,” observed Hassab.

The market was at that time still informal, and considered unwelcome by the Egyptian government, because it is located in the vicinity of the formerly upscale Opera Square, where Egypt and Africa’s first opera house once stood, surrounded by top hotels like the Grand Continental.

“The authorities tried to force the book vendors to leave the place when there were big concerts at the Khedival Opera House, and the fire engines used their hoses to spray the vendors, destroying the books -- but that did not stop the vendors,” Hassab recounted.

The cat-and-mouse game between the government and the books vendors continued for four decades until the 1940s, when the Wafd Party cabinet, headed by prime minister Mostafa El-Nahas, put an end to it, legalising the status of Al-Azabekya book market and its vendors for the first time.

“The licenses were a metal medal hung on the books stalls; the vendors used to be registered at the municipality,” Harbi Hassab said.

The elderly book vendor still remembers that when he was ten years old, his sole task at his family’s stall was to keep the books clean and to keep the old kerosene lamp lit at night.

It was in the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser that the market was connected to the electricity supply, and the stalls got electric lights for the first time.

Al-Azabekya book market
A customer searching for a book inside Al-Azabekya book market (Photo: Zeinab El-Gundy)

The current Mamluk-style wooden stalls replaced the old wooden showcases only recently, according to Hassab.

Earlier this month, Prime Minister Mostafa Madbouly declared that there the market would be renovated and upgraded, as part of the Khedival Cairo renovation mega-project.

Living almost 65 years in the market, day and night, Hassab has witnessed all kinds of customers from all over the world and from all different classes, with tastes shifting over time.

“The preferences in books vary according to customers of course, but I can tell you now that there is less demand, for instance, for old religious books or classical Arabic dictionaries,” he told Ahram Online.

“Meanwhile I can tell that youth are interested in novels, but not by old novelists, with the exception of Naguib Mahfouz, as there is always a media spotlight on him. You can barely find a young person asking for a novel by Abdel Hamid Gouda El-Sahar," he said.

For the fans of old newspaper and magazines, it is another story.

“They come from everywhere; once I had a collector from Algeria who asked for all the issues of old Egyptian magazines and newspapers covering the Algerian war of independence, especially the day French authorities declared that they would execute Algerian resistance icon Djamila Bouhired,” he said.

Asked about his favorite collectable item or book, the elderly man told Ahram Online that it depends on the date and rarity, but in the end, “every book is special and a favourite, as between its covers lie the knowledge, talent and experience of some human being for us to share.”

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