Egypt's Ramadan Book Fair a cultural success, lacks publicity

Mary Mourad , Wednesday 10 Aug 2011

Book fair witnesses high sales and a cultural boom despite low expectations


A family of four: two children and their parents, living in the popular Cairo neighbourhood, Faysal Street: where could they spend a nice but not-so-expensive evening during the holy month of Ramadan?

The Book Fair organised by the General Egyptian Book Organization offers exactly the kind of solution this kind of family is looking for: cheap entertainment with a touch of culture. The fair was planned as a minor compensation for the cancellation of the Cairo International Book Fair, so there were very low expectations. Most of the publishers considered it a definite failure, not only for being held during the month of fasting, but also for being held in a disreputable part of town. They were both right and wrong!

To the surprise of many of the participating publishers, the fair was well-attended in the first few days and sales were much higher than originally planned. Many renowned publishing houses were present in addition to the General Book Organization. It was also attended by Bibliotheca Alexandrina, National Center for Translation and the Cultural Palaces, Al-Dar Al-Masreya Al-Lubnanya, Nahdet Masr, Dar El-Hilal, Dar Merit and ELIAS among the seventy plus Egyptian publishers and the eleven Arab publishers. The tradition of holding a book fair in Ramadan is not entirely new; the Book Organization has traditionally held one at its premises on Corniche El-Nil. But the decision this year to expand it to this scale had made news.

A pleasant surprise

The father of Faress, 6 years, and Rawda, 3 years, was delighted to have the fair next door. "We used to go all the way to Nasr City,” he said, “but this year it was a pleasant surprise to have it next door. I even took a day off to bring the children."

The good news that awaited the General Organisation for Cultural Palaces team was that they ran out of stock. The sight of trucks unloading additional books to fill the near-empty racks was unexpected, being only the third day of the 20 day event.

Among the Arab publishers, Hameed Mohamed, from the Iraqi House of Wisdom, was amazed with the extent of interest in culture and books among the Egyptians.

Even the Azbakeya Wall sellers of used books had a share of the fair: half an aisle included three bookstores known for cheap and good quality books.

Sales of computers, games, electronic translators and other non-book commodities were also sold. These were mostly directed towards children and education; they found a good audience in Faysal.

Mohamed El-Wardani, from Academic Bookshop, was among the pleasantly surprised: "Usually we take a very large area in the fair, but since the location was small, we focused only on Arabic books and light reading. It's doing quite well despite our expectations." Hany Dukhanna, from Dar Misr Al-Mahrousa, considered it a successful regional initiative. He said, "As a new idea, it's great. If there were a better traffic flow and better media coverage, we would have witnessed even more visitors."

Bassam Wagdy, from Kortaj Centre, described the fair as a "miracle". As an inhabitant of Al-Haram area, he has seen a transformation. An area which usually accumulates piles of waste now houses the fair’s large marquee. The busy salesman did not have time to say anymore because his small-and-cheap books were attracting a significant number of buyers at noon during the hot summer Ramadan day.

An anonymous publishing house said that despite the lack of profits being made, the major benefit was having the chance to be present in an area “previously deprived of all cultural services.”

Religious books had a large share of the market, but many expected a more dominant presence. A rough count of the stalls suggested that about 40 Per cent of the space was dedicated to books about religion.

Refaat Ahmed, from Dar Al-Someii in Saudi, was dissatisfied with the fair. Selling only religious books, he claimed, "there are no researchers or knowledge-seekers here, only simple people looking for simple books."

Reasons for Success and Drawbacks

According to the audience and publishers, the ingredients for the success of the fair were the opening times, the 50 Per cent sale, the location and the cultural schedule. The fair closes at 4pm and reopens at 9pm to ensure milder weather and time to rest after the working day and there are musical performances which encourage many to stay longer or visit multiple times.

Publicity and limited size were the severest drawbacks. Among 20 passers-by asked me for directions to the fair, even though we were within 100 metres of it. The fair was competing with many other Ramadan events taking place at the same time, in the same place, with a shopping festival and new shops opening less than a Kilometre away. Interviews with the visitors showed that they found out about the fair from the internet, or from friends; only a few people noticed the one banner in the street outside.

In addition, the scene was not only missing some of the biggest publishers in the country, El-Shorouk and Madbuly, for example, but was also missing intellectuals and book-focused events.

"The International Book fair allows us to have detailed agreements with publishers, including celebrations for new books and writers. But this is a much smaller event," explained Rehab from the public relations office of the Book Organization. Abdalla from Dar Merit was not particularly optimistic about the attendance of such events in Faysal, and the owner of the publishing house, Mohamed Hashim, preferred to focus on work outside the fair. Yet news started coming that publishers are pushing for events, and that may encourage even more participation in the coming days.

The lecture taking place that evening around the Arabic Novel was a topic of interest to many of the usual International Fair visitors, but not necessarily to the visitors of the fair in Faysal. It turned out that some of the crowd were just waiting for the musical performance later on.

"A revolution took place outside these walls, but not anywhere inside," was the reaction from Mustafa, a Kurdistan-Iraqi visitor at the fair who was looking for new books. He claimed to only find old titles and many missing publishers. His disappointment was a reflection of the drop in the book business the last months.

Mohamed, a retired civil servant, had toured the fair for over an hour, looking for a particular book, but failed to find it due to the limited collection. "We had to make choices and bring only the most recent and relevant publications," was the answer of both Dar Merit and Dar Al-Mahrousa. The mere 3,000 square metres of display is nothing compared to the usual 70,000 square metres of the International Fair.

"There are definitely lessons for the future," indicated Elgemeily, owner of Dar Waad publishing house, "but for the first time it is quite good. Whether we agreed or disagreed with Ahmed Megahed's decision to hold the fair, we are now all convinced it was a good idea."

Safety first?

The intense presence of police was quite remarkable, especially in contrast with their complete absence from the chaotic street just outside the fair. The bad reputation of neighbourhood raised concerns about the safety of the fair. About 20 policemen and 10 other security personnel were present all day, though it seemed no one knew who or what they were protecting us from.

At midnight the fair was still open and nearly full – a buzzing atmosphere with children staying up late and families having a good time.

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