Of books and debates: Strong showing at Cairo International Book Fair

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 14 Feb 2023

It might have started on a note of apprehension, but the Cairo International Book Fair ended with an impressive turnout, good sales and much more

Cairo International Book Fair
Cairo International Book Fair


This year’s fair, which lasted from 26 January to 6 February, was described by organisers as one of the best-attended editions since its launch in 1969. Around 3.5 million visitors made the journey to the very far end of east Cairo at the Egypt International Exhibition Centre.

It also, according to the statements of public and private publishers, saw very good sales both of new titles – those mostly coming out from the private publishing side – and of new editions of old titles – those coming mostly from the state-run publishing business, essentially, GEBO (General Egyptian Book Organisation), NCT (The National Centre for Translation) and GOCP (The General Organisation for Cultural Palaces).

The 21 reprinted volumes of Taha Hussein, put out by GOCP, to mark the 50th anniversary of his passing, were an immediate hit – with some titles running out of print, according to statements by Girgis Shoukry, secretary general of publishing at GOCP.

In an impressive surprise, Shoukry said, a great deal of Hussein’s titles was bought by relatively younger visitors who were born long after the death of the dean of Arab literature in October 1973.

The relatively affordable prices of the neat and economically produced new editions, Shoukry said, is only one factor of the success of this series – which he promised will be continued. The key factor, he said, seemed to be a genuine interest in reading the works of this key figure of enlightenment and modernism in Egypt’s 20th century.

This attention to the classics dominated this year’s book fair. Inevitably, with prominent colloquial Arabic poet Salah Jahine, being the celebrated author of the year, his works lived up to their well-established reputation of getting a lot of attention. The Quartets of Jahine, who died in 1986, proved to be a hit.

Amal, a student of law, was sure to buy a few titles from Taha Hussein, Salah Jahine and also of Laftifa Al-Zayyat, 20th-century novelist and critic, whose birth centenary was celebrated by the book fair this year. Amal also attended some of the seminars that the book fair dedicated to these three literary figures.

What Amal found attractive about these works was their ability to challenge the norms and to express ideas and views that were not mainstream at the time. “I think their books are still getting attention from our generation as they relate mostly to the ideas they are offering,” she said.

Amal visited the book fair on its fourth day with a big group of university friends who were all carrying bags of famous 20th century titles, mostly from early 20th century writers. Ahmad, also a student of law at Cairo University, said that the assumption that young people are only interested in reading light thrillers is “only a generalisation.”

Indeed, coming out as an impressive surprise to the GOCP was the attention younger visitors showed in the reprint of Mikhail Naima, a prominent Lebanese writer of the 20th century, on the life, death and works of Gibran Khalil Gibran, the Lebanese-American writer and poet of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shoukry who wrote an introduction to this new edition said that he was overwhelmed by the keen attention it received.

And while the NCT announced the Arabic translation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial as one of its best-selling titles for this year’s book fair, Hagar, an art student, said that the book fair was the opportunity to buy Arabic translations of some “key titles.” “I personally got a copy of George Orwell’s 1984 because I have been hearing a lot about it”.

Moving around the corridors of the book fair, she was on the lookout for an Arabic translation of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. “I think that this is one of the best things about the book fair as it allows us to buy, at some reasonable discounts, some good books that one needs to read,” she said. Next on Hagar’s shopping list were a few titles of Naguib Mahfouz.

Diwan, the new publisher of Mahfouz, offered the works of this Egyptian Nobel Laureate at an overall 20 percent discount. According to Ahmed Qarmalawi, of Diwan, with close to half of the works of Mahfouz already printed in the Diwan edition, “including his most reputable masterpieces”, it was clear that this branded edition, as it comes with notebooks, tote bags and bookmarks, “is doing very well.”

Classics, Qarmalawi agreed, seemed to have their perfectly safe niche at the book fair this year. For him, this does not come as a surprise.

It was this faith in the appeal of the works of early and mid-20th century writers that prompted Al-Mahroussa to pursue the reprint of some of the titles of Edouard Al-Kharrat and to embark on the ambitious project of collecting the published books of prominent critic and commentator Louis Awad in three thick volumes under the title of “A History of Modern Egyptian Thinking.”

To make sure that the volumes would not be prohibitively expensive, given the sharp increase in the price of printing paper, Farid Zahran of Al-Mahroussa decided to offer the books at a significant discount. “I think these kind of titles are essential in engaging the readers on issues that are really worth thinking about nowadays, especially the pursuit of modernisation and political objectives – first independence and then democratisation,” Zahran said.

He added that despite the high price of the three volumes they did get considerable attention “and this shows that the growing taste for books carrying profound ideas and for non-fiction is on the rise.”

According to Mahmoud Abdel-Nabi of Ibiidi, the impressive success of Masr Al-Modheshah (Fascinating Egypt), a book that recalls the social norms of Egypt, mostly in the 1940s and 1950s, testifies to the massive curiosity to learn about the past.

Qarmalawi of Diwan labels this curiosity as a taste for anthropology. It is this taste, he said, that secured the success of two books that examine the social and art history of Egypt: one by Shehab Al-Khachab, Al-Fahama (Making Sense Out of Things), and the other by Fayrouz Karawiya, Kol Dah Kan Leih (Whatever Caused This All). “They were both very successful,” he said.

Fatma Al-Boudy of Al-Ain agreed that this year’s book fair showed a growing interest in non-fiction, especially when it comes to books that deal with issues of interest to the younger generation of readers. “I think what we saw in this year’s book fair is a clear and definite appetite to read books on the history of Egypt and the history of the region – and certainly on the many aspects of the history of the Palestinian cause,” she said.

Al-Ain’s title on the political history of Egyptian Jewry and the Jewry of the Arab world were immediate hits. Equally successful, according to Al-Boudy, were titles on the history of Cairo, including one by Berkeley professor Nezar Al-Sayyad, and the history of the Mamluks.

“This interest has been coming for ten years more or less; it started after the January Revolution with the passion to read and learn but this year it certainly peaked,” Al-Boudy said. She added that it would be useful for the organisers of the book fair to try and synchronise some of the many seminars that take place on the sidelines of the book fair with the publishing and reading trends.

For sure, history was well represented in the seminars held on the sideline of this year’s fair. In one seminar, Monica Hannah, professor of eastern Mediterranean archaeology and heritage studies, spoke at length about the need to reconsider the way history is offered in school curricula and also of the need for more titles in original Arabic on the history of ancient Egypt.

Also addressing a seminar dedicated to celebrating the birth centenary of Mohamed Hassanein Heikal, the most renowned Egyptian and Arab journalist, prominent journalist and commentator Abdallah Al-Sennawi spoke of the role of an informed journalist in keeping public records of history through their coverage.

Al-Shorouk stepped in with several titles in a range of formats that satisfy this growing interest to learn about the past. It did well with Mohamed AboulGhar’s Al-Filak Al-Masry (The Egyptian Legion) which digs into the archives of early 20th century Egypt to follow the path of forced conscription of Egyptian peasants and with Khaled Fahmy’s Arabic edition of his original English In Quest of Justice – Law and Forensic Medicine in Modern Egypt that examines some elements of the modernisation of Egypt and the impact thereof on Egyptians.

Another success was Al-Shorouk’s published memoirs of Albert Arie, the dean of Egyptian Jewry who passed away a couple of years ago at the age of 92. Also getting attention but not doing so well in sales, due to its relatively high price, was a coffee table book that Al-Shorouk put out in collaboration with the real estate tycoon Al-Ismaelia, which has been involved for close to two decades, in refurbishing and relaunching some of the architectural gems of downtown Cairo.

According to Ahmed Bedeir of Al-Shorouk, the success of this year’s fair was pleasant but not that unexpected. “There was a lot of apprehension ahead of the inauguration of the book fair due to the inevitable increase of the prices of books and we were conscious of this but our bet was on the passion of the people to read and to buy books,” he said.

“After all, while the Cairo International Book Fair is a very significant fair, given the impressive volume of production of books in Egypt and the magnitude of the Egyptian audience, we still have other book fairs to target, including the Muscat Book Fair next week, then the book fairs of Al-Damam [in Saudi Arabia] and Erbil [in Iraq],” he added.

According to Bedeir, however, the growing appeal for non-fiction has not managed to challenge the ultimate superiority of fiction for the Egyptian audience. “Fiction, of its many genres, still comes number one,” he stated. He said that new fiction titles, like Ezzedine Shoukry’s Garima Filgama (A Crime at University) and Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid’s Baei Al-Sohof (The Newspapers Seller) and older titles like Utopia from Ahmed Kahled Tawfik and the Granada Trilogy of Radwa Ashour all did well.

Karam Youssef of Al-Kotob Khan agreed that fiction is still king. This, she said, is the case with contemporary writers but also with translated titles of novelists from all over the world that Al-Kotb Khan is keen to present.

Hanna, Rim and Ziyad, a group of university students who frequented the Cairo International Book Fair for three consecutive days, said that their purchases were almost half fiction and half non-fiction. On fiction, the three agreed, it was mostly titles of contemporary writers, both Egyptian and foreign, but on non-fiction, it was a mix.

Hanna went for the lighter side of non-fiction with Omar Taher’s books, published by Al-Karma, including his newest title Omar Taher Ando Diouf (Omar Taher Has Guests) and to Diwan’s Kol Dah Kan Leih. Rim, who is passionate about history got a copy of Albert Arie’s memoirs and a copy of the first and second parts of Ibiidi’s Wanas Al-Kottob (In the Company of Books) that offers a rich set of book reviews by critic and journalist Mahmoud Abdel-Shakour and some of GEBO’s titles of Taha Hussein.

Ziyad, who is passionate about cinema, got the three volumes of Al-Karma’s Khetabat Mohamed Khan to Said Al-Shimy (The Letters of Mohamed Khan to Said Al-Shimy) that recalls the learning journey of prominent film director Khan. 

The three said they had to cut down the size of their shopping lists due to the soaring prices of books which remained high despite the significant discounts.

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