For the second year in a row, the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) — among Arab publishers’ most eagerly awaited annual events — was held at the Egypt International Exhibition Centre in New Cairo. In 808 wings, the CIBF (22 January-5 February) brought together 255 Arab and 51 non-Arab publishers from 35 countries, as well as 41 used book retailers (many of whom offer rare editions at low prices). The Egyptian publishers participating include the General Egyptian Book Organisation (the fair’s organisers), Al-Ain, Al-Kotob Khan, Merit, Nahdet Misr, Al-Shorouk, Al-Tanwir, Al-Karma and, practically Egypt’s only English publisher, AUC Press. This year Senegal is the guest of honour, while the round commemorates the author of The Character of Egypt, famed Egyptian geographer Gamal Hamdan (1928-1993). Below is Soha Hesham’s selection of CIBF highlights.
Mina Nagy, Madinat Al-Shams (City of the Sun), Al-Ain Publishing House, 2020. pp189
Two young authors, M and H, as novelist Mina Nagy chooses to refer to them, decide to launch a publishing house in the neighbourhood of Heliopolis, due to M’s rare phobia which prohibits him from leaving his neighbourhood. It’s been 10 years since he visited any other part of Cairo, but the new project is a major change since M and H will also be living in the apartment and, sparing neither money nor effort, they pay attention to every small detail: huge television, sound system, even a home gym. A comic novel, it is also a nostalgic hymn to Heliopolis, to whose nooks and crannies it pays tribute. M had wanted to become a private detective before he found out that this job didn’t exist in Egypt, so together with H he embarks on a mysterious case to the benefit of a French woman named D. This is a witty novel that combines humour with suspense.
Born in 1987, Nagy is an Egyptian writer whose books include the long poem Usbou Al-Alam (Holy Week). His first novel, Bela Agneha (Wingless), appeared in 2016. He is currently working on a non-fiction project on phobia and grief.
Ahmed Naji, Wal Nomour Li Hograti (And Tigers to My Room), Al-Mahrousa Publishing House, 2020, pp320
This is an experimental account of a failed marriage and a fragile love story, set mostly in Cairo and spanning millennia from 3000 BC to the near future. Suffering from insomnia, the hero roams the streets of Cairo tirelessly reflecting on trees and bridges, while the heroine conjures up an alternate reality. “To accomplish that promise, ladies and gentlemen,” Ahmed Naji writes, “I want every person to close his eyes and think of one flaw, one weak point that he can’t overcome. Please think for seconds and point out one problem that makes your life hard.”
Born in Mansoura in 1985, Naji is a US-based Egyptian writer and a former journalist at the literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab magazine. His books include Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Mekki (2009) and Loghz Al-Mahragan Al-Mashtour (The Mystery of the Broken Mahragan, 2017). He spent a year in prison when a chapter of his first novel Estekhdam Al-Haya (The Use of Life) was deemed “a violation of public morality”.
Ahmed Al-Mallawani, Ma Yoshbih Al-Qatl (What Looks Like Killing), Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, 2020, pp255
This is a fantasy that revolves around four different characters on their journeys in search of the tree of wisdom. Those journeys intersect and merge, however, revealing a deeper search for the self past pain and suffering to the wisdom hidden deep inside each of us. The novel poses questions about destiny and will, and uncovers the paradox of being human. Ahmed Al-Mallawani’s novels include Zeus Yageb Ann Yamout (Zeus Must Die, 2010), Al-Rawhani (The Spiritual, 2015), Wardiet Farawla (Farawla’s Shift, 2016), and Al-Fabrica (The Factory, 2018), which won the Sawiris Award in 2018.
Donia Kamal, Tartibat Ashwaaya (Random Arrangements), Al-Karma Publishing House, 2019, pp264
An epistolary feminist novel addressed to four characters who were influential in the narrator-protagonist’s life, this book deals with revolution, love and self-discovery. Donia Kamel is the author of Two Tales: She and Doha (2009) and A Seventh Cigarette (2012), the latter a Sawiris award recipient. Her work deals with her life story and her relationship with her father as well as the events of the 25 January Revolution and the human stories of the 18-day sit-in at Tahrir Square.
Hanan Kamal, Korrasa Khadraa wa Rasael (Green Notebook and Messages), Al-Ain Publishing House, 2020, pp110
Opening with a dramatic monologue addressed to God, this cancer memoir by the late journalist Hanan Kamal, who finally lost her struggle with the disease, recounts six years of illness. Failed attempts at treatment and drastic changes in her appearance are counterbalanced by the love story that illuminated her life with her husband. Born in 1973, Kamal is also the author of The Book of Watching (2018).
Iman Mersal, Fi Athar Enayat Al-Zayat (In Pursuit of Enayat Al-Zayat), Al-Kotob Khan Publishing House, 2019, pp243
In 1993 poet and author Iman Mersal randomly came across Al-Hob wal Samt (Love and Silence), the only novel by the late author Enayat Al-Zayat (1936-1963), who took her own life in her 20s. Feeling a deep connection with the text, she resolved to investigate Al-Zayat’s history and, in the process, found out about herself. The result is less a biography of Al-Zayat than a journey of self-discovery through the events of her life, presenting a layered and historically rich woman’s experience of Cairo.
Born in Mansoura in 1966 and based in Canada, where she teaches at university, Mersal is a poet whose most recent collection was Hatta Atakhala Aan Fekret Al-Beyout (So as to give up on the idea of houses, 2013). Her last book was the essay How to Mend: Motherhood and Its Ghosts (2017).
Saad Al-Kersh, Al-Maestro (The Maestro), Al-Ain Publishing House, 2020, pp233
Set on a small boat on its way to ship in the Arabian Gulf, this is the story of four men: the Indian man who made the boat with his own hands, Anil; a Tibetan worker who dreams of home, Tsu; a marginalised Gulf citizen, Nawaf; and an Egyptian lawyer, Mustafa. Through their conversations and the process of rescuing a young woman thrown into the sea, four radically different world views emerge, so do their worries and passions, all expressed freely as they know they will never see each other again. Despite their radically different perspectives, they agree that life is cruel.
Saad Al-Kersh is an Egyptian novelist whose books include the trilogy Washm Wahid (A Sole Tattoo, 2001), Awal Al-Nahar (Early Morning, 2005) and Leil Ouzir (Ouzir’s Night, 2008) as well as Diaries from Al-Tahrir Square (2012) and In the Praise of Films (2006).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 6 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.