BOOK REVIEW: New titles at the 2022 Cairo International Book Fair

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 1 Feb 2022

This year, the Cairo International Book Fair is offering a wide range of new non-fiction titles. History books and biographies are ubiquitous. Ahram Online sifts through some of these titles.


Fi Qalb El-Ahdath – ِ El-Diplomaciya El-Massriyah fil-Harb wal-Salam wa Sanawat El-Taghier

(At the Heart of Events – Egyptian Diplomacy in the Years of War, Peace, and Transformation)

Dar El-Shorouk

“During the last 10 years of his rule Mubarak had become uninterested in accommodating any calls for change, especially those related to power-sharing. He also became weary of taking over governance responsibilities.”

This is part of the testimony shared in the political memoir of Nabil Fahmy, a career diplomat who joined the foreign service in the 1960s and was handed the foreign ministry in the summer of 2013.

Fahmy’s testimony on the January Revolution is a first-hand account as a citizen and well-connected -- even if retired --diplomat. It is backed by a first-hand take on the insides of Egyptian politics during Hosny Mubarak’s last decade in office when Fahmy was serving as Egypt’s ambassador to the US for nine years in a row.

Fahmy’s political biography is also offering a first-hand testimony on a year of change and turbulence where he served as foreign minister in the first government that took office after the ouster of Mohamed Morsy, only one year after the Islamist candidate was sworn in as president of Egypt in June 2012 in the wake of the first democratic elections after the January Revolution.

What this book has to offer is not just the testimony of the author on what he experienced and saw, but also a political read of the wider national and international context of close to 50 years.

On top of this, the book is offering a concise but very telling read of an Egyptian man who lived through the defeat of the 1967, the crossing of 1973 at the household of then Egypt’s prominent diplomat and foreign minister Ismail Fahmy.

Dar El-Shorouk’s new volume is the Arabic edition of an English original that came out in 2020. It was translated and edited by El-Shorouk’s political commentator and Foreign Desk Editor Ashraf El-Barbary.

Saniaat Masr – Part II

(The Artisans of Egypt – Part II)

El-Karma Books

In 2016, author Omar Taher and El-Karma Books must have been very happy with the big success of the first volume of Saniaat Masr (The Artisans of Egypt) and the profiles that the author wrote of over 20 figures of Egyptian men and women who contributed significantly to shaping the modern face of Egypt in art, industry, and more. Seven years down the road, visitors of this January Cairo International Book Fair can buy Saniaat Masr -- Part II.

Taher’s recent title adds more profiles to more figures whose contributions had a firm imprint on the face of life in Egypt in the past 50 years. However, unlike the first part, the second part of Saniaat Masr is loaded with pictures.

In one picture, the reader gets to see the early operation of the very first segment of a key element of Cairo landscape: the 6 October flyover. The picture is annexed to Taher’s profile of Michel Bakhoum, a prominent civil engineer of the 1950s and 1960s, whose joint work with Ahmed Moharram, another prominent civil engineer, gave the capital of Egypt some of the original designs of the underground metro, the Ring Road and both El-Tahrir and El-Opera parking lots.

Sayed Koraim is another civil engineer that Taher profiles. Koraim is the designer of Nasr City. It was meant to be called Gamal Abdel-Nasser City. Originally, Nasr City was designed to be the administrative quarter of the 1952 political regime prior to the defeat of 1967 that put an end to this plan.

Other profiles in Taher’s most recent title include that of Abdel-Badie El-Kamhawy, a legendary name in the promotion of literacy through radio and TV programmes that were aired for consecutive years; Leftayah El-Sabaa, a medical doctor whose TV programme that started airing with the very early days of the Egyptian TV service is credited for one of the most successful public health campaigns; and Kamal Ramzy Estino, the man who started the public food rations system in Egypt.

Much like the first part, the second part of Saniaat Masr is not strictly the stories of individuals with imprints, but more of an ambitious nation that is aspiring for modernity.

Ded El-Tarikh

(Against History)

El-Dar El-Masriyah El-Lebnaniyah

With 10 chapters dedicated to revisiting what might be for many people established facts about the history of Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries, Mostafa Ebeid is trying to contest the dominant narratives on some of the figures and people of these years.

According to the book, Mostafa Kamel, the political leader who is widely acclaimed in school history curricula for leading the call for independence from British occupation of Egypt, is only an eloquent orator with reactionary social views whose aim was never the real independence of Egypt, but rather the end of the British occupation to take the country back to the sole rule of the Ottoman Empire.

Mohamed Naguib, the first president of Egypt after the ouster of king Farouk in 1952, was not the potential democrat who was removed by the dictatorship of the Gamal Abdel-Nasser led-Free Officers, as Mohamed Naguib claimed in the memoires that he wrote in the 1970s. He was rather just another potential dictator who happened to lose his chance to rule when he got cut off by the more ambitious Nasser two years after the ouster of Egypt’s last king.

Abdel-Halim Hafez, the legendary singer of Egypt in the 1950s to the 1970s, was not the kind and harmless man he might have come across to be. According to Ebeid, Hafez was more of a cunning and enterprising person who was perfectly capable of doing harm to those he competed with.

Ismail Sedky Pasha, the prime minister of king Fouad, was not the brutal authoritarian politician who was too focused on accommodating the British occupation, but rather a visionary who pursued economic advancement and urban development.

Ebeid’s thesis in each of the 10 chapters is supported with what he calls historic evidence – essentially quotes from biographies, memoires, press columns, interviews.

This book could easily be seen as a sequel to a previous title of Ebeid’s Sabaa Khawagat (Seven Foreigners) that also aimed to offer a counter-narrative on what he argued, to the disagreement of many, is an unfair account of the role of foreign industrialists and entrepreneurs in Egypt during the first part of the 20th century.

El-Moelaim Ibrahim Gohary – Sira Masriyah min El-Qarn El-Thamen Ashr

(Master Ibrahim Gohary – An Egyptian Biography from the 18th Century)

Dar El-Maraya

The book by historian researcher Magdi Girgis is far from being a strict biography of this prominent 18th century Coptic figure who walked the quarters of power, amassed wealth, and contributed generously to Coptic charities.

This is more of a read of the norms of political rule and economy, the history of Copts, and the dilemmas of Egyptian society during the years of Ibrahim (El-)Gohary who was born around 1733 and died around 1795.

In the book, Girgis is actually contesting some of the accounts on the history of this prominent Coptic figure – including the accuracy of his family name – Gohary and not El-Gohary, the economic status of his family – middle class and not poor, his wives and children, his association with the rulers of Egypt and the leading figures of the Coptic Church of Egypt and the details of the charities he made and the churches he fixed and built.

The archival research that Girgis is sharing in this volume is certainly rich. It does consolidate the basic argument that the author is trying to make: in 18th century Egypt, while the Copts were literally treated as a minority it was not impossible for the ambitious and well educated to climb the social ladder and find an established place in the quarters of politics.

The book is also clear in underlining the significance of political context on the decisions of the choices and leaders of the minorities in turbulent times and the gambles that they might have to take, at times at the expense of their own best interest.

It is rather hard for the reader to go through the pages of this book without drawing some inevitable parallels between past and present.

Ayam Selim El-Awal

(The days of Selim I)

El-Dar El-Masriyah El-Lebnaniyah

The political tension between Egypt and Turkey during the past seven years has prompted a lot of re-visiting of the Ottoman rule of Egypt that lasted from the early 16th to the early 19th centuries. Mostly, the argument has been that Ottomans brought destruction to Egypt, especially in comparison to the rule of Mamelukes, in the late 13th to the early 16th centuries, or to the rule of the Mohamed Aly Family from the early 19th century until the 1952 Revolution.

In this recent title, Helmy El-Namnam examines the 18 months of Selim I, the ninth Ottoman sultan, who executed the conquest of Egypt in the early 16th century. His basic argument was that Selim I was just another invader who brought a lot of havoc onto the country.

Under Selim I, El-Namnam is arguing, the Ottoman soldiers humiliated Egyptians and committed all sorts of atrocities upon and after the invasion of Egypt.

Arson and looting were commonplace, the author argues over and over again. Actually, he adds, many precious manuscripts were stolen from Egypt and sent to Istanbul.

Worst of all, the author says, Selim I ordered a large selected number of the country’s best skilled artisans and experienced traders to be moved to Istanbul. Of these couple or more thousands, he wrote, at least 400 died as their ship drowned in the sea. Those who survived the trip to go to Istanbul were never able to live comfortably, nor were they ever allowed to come back home. Those who tried but failed to escape their sad destiny in the capital of the Ottoman empire, the author adds, were sent to jail.

It was only upon the death of Selim I, that his successor allowed some surviving Egyptians to come back home, El-Namnam wrote. However, for the remainder of the rule of the Ottomans and until the rule of Mohamed Aly, he added, Egypt was for the most part falling into misery.

Mazag El-Basha – Tatawor Sinaat El-Khomour fi Masr

(The Pasha’s Favourite Drink – The Evolution of the Alcohol Industry in Egypt)

Sefsafa Publishing House

In this new title, Mahmoud Khairallah is following the trace of the alcohol industry in Egypt throughout the ages – from the Pharaonic times up until the rule of Mohamed Aly Pasha. And, he is basically arguing that as early as 1400 BC, or maybe even earlier, Egypt has opted to produce alcohol, beer and wine in particular, which was widely and publicly consumed and celebrated.

Khairallah, the author of the 2016 title The Rise and Fall of the Republic of Bars in Egypt, which was issued by Inssan Publishing House, is arguing that since the Pharaonic times Egyptians had some form of bars where they would gather for a drink – sometimes too many drinks – to while away an evening after a day’s hard work. This, he suggests, was certainly the case of the builders of the pyramids who were allowed to enjoy a few beers at the end of their working day.

It is hard, Khairallah argues, to underestimate the political and cultural -- or for that matter social -- significance of the bars in the history of Egypt, before and after the rule of Islam that came in the seventh century. It is actually hard, he adds, to overlook the fact that the consumption of alcohol was part of the daily food and drink practice of Arabs in the land of Islam before and also after the revelation of Islam to Prophet Muhammad.

It was upon the French Expedition, in the early 19th century, Khairallah wrote, that Egypt saw the modern bars. And, he adds, it was during the rule of Mohamed Aly Pasha that the bars spread across Cairo and Alexandria, in particular. This, he said, came with the expansion of foreign presence in Egypt.

Like many predecessors of Muslim rulers in Egypt, Khairallah says, Mohamed Aly Pasha did not opt to prohibit the making or consumption of alcohol. Instead, he adds, Mohamed Aly made sure that the owners of the celeries and bars were promptly paying their due taxes.

Still, Khairallah acknowledges that there were moments when some Egyptians were influenced by the argument that Islam is prohibiting the drinking of alcohol. Those opted for the alternative: hashish. Mohamed Aly Pasha himself, Khairallah wrote, always enjoyed smoking hashish – perhaps a lot more than drinking alcohol.

Min El-Nahdah ila El-Estenarah fi Tarikh El-Fekr El-Masry El-Hadith

(The History of Modern Egyptian Thinking – From Reawakening to Enlightenment)

El-Karma Books

In his most recent title, historian Ahmed El-Sholk is choosing to contest a narrative that has been repeated over and over again about the association between the French expedition and foreign presence in Egypt with the intellectual reawakening of Egypt. He also contests another predominant narrative that forcefully disassociates Al-Azhar from the evolution of modern thinking in Egypt.

To do so, El-Sholk chose to follow the path of the education and intellectual contribution of several intellectual figures of Egypt’s 18th to 20th centuries: Hassan El-Attar, Rifaa El-Tahtawi, Hassan El-Marsafy, Kassem Amin, Ahmed Lotfy El-Sayed, and Ahmed Zaghloul.

Three of these six intellectuals attended and taught at Al-Azhar. Actually, El-Attar was the grand sheikh of Al-Azhar in the late 18th century. The other three attended the Faculty of Law.

Their contribution to the cause of intellectual reawakening varied, depending on the time and context that each came to serve in. Many of them, for sure, had benefited from a learning trip in Europe. However, as El-Sholk stresses, their commitment to promote modern thinking was not at all a product of these trips.

For these intellectuals, there were moments when they associated modernity with the evolution of good governance. But it was not always the case. And for the most part, the author argued, they kept good relations with the rulers of the country and opted away from getting into hard disagreement with those rulers.

It would be hard, El-Sholk argues, to examine the intellectual contribution of these figures strictly within the framework of their association with the rulers of the country. After all, he says that while Ahmed Zaghloul was one of the judges who ordered the death penalty against Egyptian villagers for having allegedly killed an officer of the British occupation in the village of Denshway, Ahmed Lotfy El-Sayed was one of the lawyers who defended the accused villagers.

Ultimately, El-Sholk’s argues that the pursuit of modernity was a very long journey to which Egyptian intellectuals had been committed.

Sayed El-Anhar

(The Master of All Rivers)

Dar El-Maraya

This is the first reprint of an original text that was first put out in Cairo in the early 1960s by prominent geographer and writer Mohamed Mahmoud El-Sayed. In its original edition, the book came under the title of El-Nahr El-Khaled (The Eternal River), as the Nile River is known in Egypt. In the early 1970s, in Beirut, the same book was reprinted under the title of Sayed El-Anhar.

Sayed El-Anhar is the title that Dar El-Maraya kept with its recent publication of the book. It added a very becoming subtitle: A Literary Text on the Geography of the Nile River.

This book is indeed a poetic narration of the journey of the Nile – the longest river in Africa that cuts through 11 African countries of our modern time. In telling the story of this journey, El-Sayed went a great length to tell the story of the peoples who lived on the banks of the river, upstream to downstream: the names of the tribes, the languages they spoke, their norms of living, the crops they cultivated, and their association with the Nile.

Then there is also the evolution of life on the banks of the Nile during the colonial era that saw the introduction of new roads and dams and the development of agricultural methods.

But what this book is really offering is a context of the political developments that have been unfolding on the banks of the Nile in the countries it cuts through, including the separation of Sudan into two countries and the ongoing dispute over the mega dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.


Rehlaty maa Uber – 22 Rehla Hawl El-Alam

(My travels with Uber – 22 Trips in Many Countries of the World)

El-Dar El-Masriyah El-Lebnaniyah

Fady Zeweil is an Egyptian-born and educated computer engineer who ended up settling in Texas, in the US. It was in Austin, Texas, that he got on many Uber trips, just as he did when he came back to Egypt as he moved around Cairo and Alexandria.

However, as he travelled often, in the pre-pandemic years, on work and personal trips, Zeweil was often on an Uber ride in many cities around the world, from Paris to Tokyo and from Munich to San Francisco. And on almost every single trip he would sit next to the driver and end up engaging in a long, at times light and at times thorough, conversation.

Zeweil is offering an incredibly anecdotal account not just on his travels but more profoundly on the things he learned from these trips and from the chats he had with the drivers.

There are accounts of the poverty and dictatorship that forced some good African men out of their country into one or another Western capital where they have to put up with racism in order to make a living. There are accounts of xenophobia and Islamophobia. And there are accounts of loneliness and fear of aging alone. Then there are ample anecdotes of a driver in San Francisco who drives his clients in fancy cars to give them the impression that they are living like the stars of Hollywood, and of a driver in Tokyo who is totally apologetic for having failed to get his credit card machine to work and asks Zeweil to leave without paying the fee for a long trip.

The book is an easy and entertaining read but it prompts, even if so unintentionally, some serious questions about the price and complications of modern life in the times of the IT Revolution.

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