Five titles to consider at final week of Cairo Book Fair

Dina Ezzat , Friday 3 Feb 2017

Cairo International Book Fair (Photo: Mahmoud Madh El Naby)

Keep your eyes peeled for these five titles as you peruse the 2017 Cairo International Book Fair:

Egypt’s Crafters:

Images from the lives of those who contributed to the making of modern Egypt

Omar Taher

AlKarma Books, 2017


Across 300-plus pages, Omar Taher draws mini-profiles of over 30 people he finds instrumental to the making of at least two consecutive generations of Egyptians– those who were born in the late 1950s and are now approaching their sixties and those who were born in the 1980s and are now in their thirties.

Taher’s selection is diverse and hard to contest; one could argue for additional names, but it is rather unlikely that anyone would suggest removing the figures Taher chose for their “contribution in drawing the features of this society without getting due credit for what they had offered.”

Taher’s profiles are not intended as exhaustive reviews of the lives and works of these ‘crafters’ – but rather as a glimpse into their lives, influence and work which is forever woven into the collective consciousness of these two generations.

In his profiles of the Egyptian Greek Tomy Khresto, creator of the Corona chocolate, and Egyptian Armenian Joseph Matossian, fabricator of Cleopatra cigarettes — and earlier the Belmont brand — Taher is not just showing two entrepreneurs who branded confectionary and tobacco. He is actually profiling two men who put their hearts into their industries and felt broken upon the nationalisation of their businesses, which were rendered into the Alexandria Confectionary and Chocolate Company and the Eastern Tobacco Company.

Still, as Taher noted, for long the brands of Corona and Cleopatra were associated in the minds of most Egyptians with their first chocolate bar and their first cigarette puff.

The shock over nationalisation is also reflected in Taher’s profile of Hamza El-Shabrawishi, the designer of Egypt’s best known eau de cologne: 555.

Taher’s book is often anecdotal: he details how Cleopatra cigarettes were designed to impress Gamal Abdel Nasser and get him off smoking Kent; the story behind the gazelle on the chocolate wrapping. He also tells the story of the role Anwar Sadat played to promote collaboration between Baligh Hamdy and religious choral singer Sayyed Nakkshabandi, leading to the production of one of Egypt’s most celebrated songs “Mawllay” (My Lord).

Taher’s book introduces his reader to the women and men who made things happen: Sedkki Souliman, who helped turn the High Dam from a dream to a reality; Baki Zaki Youssef, who made it possible for the Egyptian army to overcome the Bar Lev Line; Anis Ebeid who brought subtitled films to Egypt; and Naguib El-Mestekkawi who introduced sports pages in the Egyptian press.

The Crafters of Egypt tells the story of a society that has gone through many changes throughout the 19th century, and meanwhile created so many beautiful and lasting things.

Taher’s book is particularly relevant at a moment of many unanswered questions — about the fate of Egypt’s economy, culture and society as a whole.


AbdelMoneim Khalil – Memoirs and Reflections on Egypt’s Wars in Modern Times

AlKarma Books, 2016


In the debate over the Red Sea islands of Tiran and Sanafir, the memoirs of prominent military leader in the 1967 and 1973 wars AbdelMoneim Khalil prove particularly relevant.

In his accounts, which he says are based on accurately kept dairies, Khalil recalls the Egyptian army’s use of the islands in the days leading up to the 1967 War and beyond – with documents that include a letter addressed from the 1967 general commander of the army AbdelHakim Amer.

Originally printed in 1988, the 2016 edition of AlKarma Books reveals Khalil’s memoir in over 450 pages with pictures and maps.

While it offers a glimpse of Egypt’s military role in World War II, while the country was still a British protectorate, Khalil’s book is really about the wars with Israel in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973. The last two receive greater attention, given the high ranks he held at the time.

In this sense, the memoirs of Khalil reflect considerably on some of the hardest days and years in the modern history of Egypt. They surround the catastrophic 1967 defeat, but also highlight the victories, especially the early days of 1973.

The book shows exactly, from a close-up military perspective, the reason things went wrong not just in the 1967 war but also in the second week of the October War – with a detailed account of the Israeli counter-attack that nearly reversed the outcome of the war.

Sharing his notes on the meetings he attended with both Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat in 1967 and 1973, Khalil sheds light on the quality of the leadership that each offered the army in wartime.

Khalil does justice to the incredible efforts of Nasser and his top military leaders to bring the army and the nation to its feet after the defeat and the consequent death of Amer. He also sheds considerable light on the political pressure associated with the lead up to the 1973 War, and the confusion in the chain of command once war broke out that helped Israel to develop its counteroffensive.

In very subtle and carefully chosen words, Khalil takes the liberty to offer a critique of the performance of the military and the impact of leadership.

Khalil’s memoirs are not especially anecdotal and may be a bit dry in style, but they offer informed reading.

A River of Murky Waters – The State, Society and Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Nail Shama

Rwafead Books, 2016


With the nation nearing the fourth anniversary of the 30 June 2013 demonstrations that preceded the ouster of Egypt’s first ever civilian and democratically elected president Mohamed Morsi, this close to 200-page book from Nail Shama offers interesting reading on what that day, and the fateful 3 July 2016, were really about.

Cairo is the center point for the argument that Shama makes about what really happened on the road to 30 June and beyond. It is the city that determines the success or failure of any political leader or policy plan.

Shama argues that Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president chosen 15 months after the ouster of Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011, had no real sense of Cairo – not as a big political capital that was still in the spring of 2013 gripped by political turmoil but also as the heart of Egypt’s middle class. That class which so often bears the great social and political movements.

Morsi who was born and brought up in the Delta of Egypt, and where he lived most of his life, could not relate to Cairo. He did not understand how the city or its middle class works, or how they could be motivated to act — despite his years as MP prior to the January Revolution and his relatively significant position in the Brotherhood, which was initially a middle class movement.

Shama argues that Morsi was not the first president to have failed over his inability to connect with the city. Anwar Sadat did too when he, the man of politics with such experience, decided to avoid the political pressures coming from the capital by moving to a country house in the Delta where he was born. Sadat further alienated Cairenes when he tried to introduce the mores of rural Egypt to the capital by portraying himself not as head of the executive but rather as the patriarch of a family. For Shama, this marked the beginning of his end.

Hosni Mubarak, Shama argues, developed a strong dislike for the capital and decided to retreat to Sharm ElSheik – also to avoid increasing political pressure in the last few years of his three-decade rule. There too was the beginning of the end.

According to Shama, the walls that have been erected to block many roads in downtown Cairo since the rule of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces in 2011, which were never removed under Morsi and actually increased under the rule of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, indicate that the heart and mind of Cairo has yet to be won.

Only Gamal Abdel Nasser, Shama finds, really connected to Cairo and to its middle class, which he actually worked to expand. One reason, perhaps, why the icon’s end was not brought by either assassination or waves of demonstration.

Jewish and Greek Communities in Egypt: Entrepreneurship and Business before Nasser

Najat Abdulhaq

I.B.Tauris, 2016


What was life really like in Egypt for the sizeable communities of Jews and Greeks in the last decades of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th?

This is the basic question Abdulhaq addresses in this intensely detailed and almost academic 200 page history. To answer it, the author takes a specific angle, looking at the level of economic engagement in these communities, and the impact of historical shifts in the country and region on their place here.

Abdulhaq takes as his case studies the cotton industry, the construction of the Suez Canal and the establishment of the banking system in Egypt, to examine the economic involvement of the Jewish and Greek communities. In each case he finds ample evidence to suggest a real and lasting impact by these groups.

The author looks at alternative perspectives on the role of these two communities in the history of the country well beyond their share in economy. She offers detailed accounts of how leading Jewish and Greek entrepreneurs left their long-lasting imprint on the economy – including an examination of the alleged role some Jewish bankers played in seducing Egypt’s most famous Khedive Ismail into excessive indebtedness.

The book looks essentially at the lives of Jews and Greeks in the two largest cities of late 19th and early 20th century Egypt: Alexandria and Cairo – but it does not overlook the presence of these minorities in other parts of the country.

All through, Abdulhaq shows two minorities that invested in the country they had been living in for at least a couple of generations, assuming of course that they would never leave. Thus, the book goes beyond the creation of banks businesses to the construction of quarters in cities and the building of synagogues and churches, showcasing a deep cultural engagement.

According to her argument there were four factors that led to the exodus of these two communities from Egypt: the first was the 1948 war which prompted a considerable shift in the presence of the Jewish community in Egypt with some, essentially the poorer class, eyeing Israel as a homeland and a new start. The second was the 1952 Revolution which ended the monarchy and brought on a wave of nationalism in the country—moving away from multiculturalism. The third was the 1956 War that launched a mood of skepticism and apprehension towards “foreigners,” expanding the concept to include minorities that had for long been part of the fabric of the country. the fourth was large-scale nationalisation in the 1960s which prompted the largest remaining minority, the Greeks, to migrate in droves.

The book is not half as colourful as other titles issued on the history of Jews or Greeks in Egypt; it is short on anecdotes and has very little space for personal narratives or images. Still, it offers insight not only on a crucial element of the lives of Jews and Greeks in pre-1952 Egypt but also on the economy of the country prior to the establishment of the Republic.

Fabulous Veils

Iman Refaat

Paradigm Shift, 2016


How will Gameela handle the suffocating life she has to live with an extremely insensitive, borderline abusive husband? What would Fatema do to spare her daughter the fate she had to put up with under the wrath of a disturbed and physically abusive husband? And for how long can Madeeha tolerate the endless and painful expectations of a mother who only sees life through the lens of socio-economic privileges?

Where do these three women come from and why are they, despite their diverse socio-economic backgrounds, held captive by their roles as wives and mothers – with none of the happiness those roles should contain.

These are the questions that Iman Refaat explores in her debut, semi-fictional book of 290 pages.

Refaat admits that the stories she brings together are inspired by the true stories of three women.

They are women who were born in the second half of the 1960s and were forced to abandon their dreams and their self-esteem bit by bit. At one point each is given a chance to make a drastic change.

Refaat’s book is a window on the daily agony of many Egyptian women – of the same age bracket of Gameela, Madeeha and Fatema, as of older and younger. It shows the complexity of anxieties that go way beyond the obvious financial challenges, to the emotionally draining binds that most must submit to.

With 2017 labeled by the Egyptian government as ‘the year of women’ by the government, with officials making announcements about state support for women, Fabulous Veils offers a serious reminder that many injustices go deeper than what the state is yet willing to acknowledge.  


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