The challenge of Cairo International Book Fair jubilee

Soha Hesham, Sunday 10 Feb 2019

Even with a dedicated bus service — which worked well for some but not others — the location was difficult to reach, posing a huge obstacle in the way of the golden jubilee round

Cairo Book Fair
Cairo Book Fair
The 50th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF, 23 January-5 February) folded on Tuesday, having drawn in nearly 376,000 visitors in its first 10 days. Such success had been contested since the decision was made to relocate it from the fair grounds in Nasr City to the Egypt International Exhibition Centre in the Fifth Settlement, New Cairo, significantly farther out from the city centre.
Even with a dedicated bus service — which worked well for some but not others — the location was difficult to reach, posing a huge obstacle in the way of the golden jubilee round, but with state-of-the-art facilities and sophisticated organisation, this may be the closest round yet to a world-standard book exhibition.
Events were well organised in well-equipped round-table rooms on the top floor and there were plenty of clearly identifiable young volunteers everywhere with apps to help them guide visitors. Somewhat disappointingly, books could only be located by publishing house and the only payment option available was cash. Here are a few of the acquisitions Al-Ahram Weekly nonetheless managed to make.

This year marks the 93rd anniversary of “Dean of Arabic Literature” Taha Hussein’s most controversial book, On Jahiliyya Poetry, first published in 1926. The Lebanese publisher Dar Al-Jadid’s 2018 edition with a plain white cover, of somewhat overpriced, is a quality paperback.

“I want to apply to literature that philosophical school founded by Descartes for the inquiry into the true nature of things,” Hussein writes in his prologue. “As all are aware, the fundamental rule in this approach is for the researcher to discard everything he knew about the subject in advance so as to approach it with an entirely free and clear mind.”  

Applying the Cartesian method to pre-Islamic poetry, he concludes that pre-Islamic poetry isn’t actually pre-Islamic at all, but was composed after Islam and attributed to earlier times. Hussein had fallen foul of Al-Azhar, where his education started, long before he wrote On Jahiliyya Poetry, having obtained his doctorate at the Sorbonne. On its publication the book was attacked by a professor at the Azhar affiliated language college Dar Al-Uloum, Mohamed Abdel-Muttalib, who in a  2 May 1926 Al-Ahram article took Hussein to task for his remarks on the Quranic story of the Prophet Ibrahim and his son Ismail:

“In ancient times, there was a war between the Arabs and the Jews that ended in a truce, after which the two sides sought to create a bond of kinship between them, towards which end this story was invented. The story appealed to the Quraish tribe who felt it in their interests to establish that Mecca had a glory such as that of ancient Rome and because it relates that the Kaaba was constructed by Ibrahim and Ismail... When Islam arrived and was resisted by the pagans, it took advantage of this story to establish the bond between Islam and the two ancient religions, Christianity and Judaism, thereby fortifying its power to overcome Arab paganism… Thus, the circumstances surrounding this story are clear. It is of relatively recent conception, appearing shortly before the emergence of Islam, and was used by Islam for a religious purpose and accepted by Mecca for a religious as well as a political purpose. Consequently, literary and linguistic history can disregard it in order to determine the origins of classical Arabic.”

The campaign against the book continued, while the university bought all available copies to prevent its distribution and Hussein was taken to court for apostasy and contempt of religion and expelled from the Egyptian University.  But in an early triumph for secularism and freedom of expression Chief Prosecutor Mohamed Nour argued that Hussein’s critics had taken his statements out of their academic context – they were made in the course of a study with no bearing on religious issues, he argued –  and so concluded that there was no evidence that Taha Hussein deliberately maligned or denigrated Islam.

Dar Al-Saqi’s new volume of 18 previously uncollected short stories by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2007), Hams Al-Nogoum (or “Stars Whispers”, as Roger Allen translates the title which is due to appear in English this autumn). The discovery made by Mahfouz’s biographer the critic Mohamed Shoair when Mahfouz’s daughter Umm Kalthoum handed him a box of papers in the late novelist’s hand. Shoair wrote a comprehensive introduction, referring to his notable book Sons of Gebelawi: Biography of the Forbidden Novel, which he was researching when he unearthed the manuscripts.

All except for one, these 18 pieces were published following the assassination attempt to which Mahfouz was subjected in October 1994, notably by Al-Ahram’s Nisf Al-Donia magazine. When Shoair found them, they were among a group of 40 pieces filed under “Stories to be published: 1993-1994”, the rest of which are included in Mahfouz’s last two collections. The stories in Stars Whispers are typical of Mahfouz’s settings and characters: the lower middle class in the alleyways of Islamic Cairo, though they incorporate a symbolic dimension. As Shoair says in his introduction, recalling Sons of Gebelawi itself, time plays the greatest role in these stories.

Damir Misr Al-Haii (Egypt’s Live Conscience) was published by the Supreme Council for Culture to mark “An Evening in Love of Negm”, a programme celebrating vernacular poet and 1970s leftist icon Ahmed Fouad Negm (1929-2013), also known as Al-Fagouni as he calls himself in his memoirs. Edited by the poet Hassan Tilib, the book contains articles and poems about Negm by, among others, two very high-profile writers: Soheir Al-Qalamawi and Salah Eissa. Contributors also include Al-Samah Abdallah, Mohamed Ahmed Al-Sayed, Ragab Al-Sawi, Shaaban Youssef, Radwa Al-Awadi, Azza Abul-Yazid and Tilib himself.

As Al-Qalamawi argues in her article, it was prison that shaped Negm’s perspective and honed his skill. It was in prison that he met the blind composer Sheikh Imam Eissa, with whom he formed the legendary duo that came to define the Student Movement and opposition to President Sadat’s policies of capitalism and peace with Israel. By 1946, Negm had taught himself to read and write. He had also embraced socialist principles, joining the National Committee for Workers and Students. He was detained for participating in the workers’ strike in 1959, and again for three years in the 1960s, when he produced his first book, with an introduction by Al-Qalamawi. He later moved in with Sheikh Imam in Ghouriya, but was imprisoned again under President Sadat. The two were to give concerts together all over the world. Their songs resurfaced widely during the January Revolution in 2011, one of whose leaders, the activist Nawara Negm, is Negm’s daughter by the writer Safinaz Kazem.

Dar Al-Jadid’s biography of the great Egyptian-Syrian singer Asmahan or Amal Al-Atrash (1912-1944), Qissat Asmahan (The Asmahan Story), is a 2019 reprint of a 1962 book by Fomeil Labib (1929-1988). A journalist at Rose Al-Youssef magazine and later Dar Al-Hilal, Labib bases his book on the testimony of Asmahan’s brother Fouad Al-Atrash, and makes frequent references to her better known brother, the star composer, singer and actor Farid Al-Atrash. Notwithstanding “the pain and heartbreak, for life doesn’t offer someone like Asmahan every day”, as Fouad reportedly told Labib, when Asmahan died in a car crash in Ras Al-Bar at the age of 31, the tragedy left too many questions unanswered.

Asmahan was born on a boat while her royal Druze family were fleeing the French during the Druze revolution. Asmahan’s talent was discovered through Farid’s connections when she was only 14 or 15, and she quickly rose to rival the likes of Umm Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. She married her cousin Hassan Al-Atrash who asked her to give up singing and took her along to Damascus, but after giving birth to her only daughter Camelia she returned to Egypt and married the Egyptian director Ahmed Badrakhan. One side of Asmahan’s life the book also deals with is her rumoured political activity and possible work as a spy, which may have been the reason behind her premature death.

The General Egyptian Book Organisation has republished the late scholar Helmy Shalaby’s 2000 book Jadal Al-Qanawat Al-Moghlaqa (Closed Channel Dialectics), with an introduction by Anwar Mogheith. With a picture of Sisyphus on the cover, the first edition reflects the central theme of the book: the vicious circle of pointless toil. Using philosophy (especially Hegel), history, psychology and sociology, Shalaby discusses the relationship between the citizen and the state employs a kind of Socratic dialogue. At the outset he quotes the great liberal man of letters Louis Awad: “Our wars were always incomplete, they stopped midway, just as our revolutions were incomplete and also stopped midway. For a total war like a total revolution has a tremendous price which our societies –  oscillating between old and new, underdevelopment and modernisation – couldn’t afford, so we were always like the Sisyphus, the Greek hero condemned to carry a stone to the top of Mount Olympus which, once he reaches the top, rolls back down forcing him to start over.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 February 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: The jubilee challenge

Search Keywords:
Short link: