Day at the fair

Soha Hesham , Tuesday 30 Jan 2024

Soha Hesham spent a day at the Cairo Book Fair

photo: Ahmed Agami
photo: Ahmed Agami


The second day of the Cairo International Book Fair was a gloomy Friday, made all Kafkaesque by the traffic jammed streets surrounding the International Centre for Conferences and Fairs (ICCF) in New Cairo. It took my two friends and me half an hour to park, and then we had to trek in the wind like a band of explorers to get to the venue.  

The 55th round of the book fair runs under the slogan “Creating Knowledge: Preserving the Word,” and features 1,200 publishers from 70 countries spread out over the four huge halls. But until you looked for it, there was no sign of either Egyptologist Selim Hassan (1887-1961) or renowned children’s author Yacoub Al-Sharouni (1931-2023), the two personalities of the year.

What was striking, rather, was the lack of book buyers. The fair was chock-full of visitors but, very unusually for the annual event, where you can normally see more plastic bags filled with books than people, there was hardly anyone carrying a book and the halls themselves were relatively empty. The outdoor food court, by contrast, was crawling. No amount of inflation will deter people from eating, I suppose.

In Hall 4, the Saudi Athar Publishing House offered discounted volumes for LE150-LE250 depending on size and newness. This was reasonable, all things considered, but beyond the capacities of most readers.

Further ahead was the Milan-based Almutawassit, which publishes the finest selection of contemporary literature and select translations (including, this year, the complete oeuvre of J G Ballard — by Palestinian writer and translator Samer Abu Hawwash). Almutawassit founder, who was present, joked that “people are afraid to ask the price. New books that used to cost LE200, he said, now cost as much as LE600.

Two of the Egyptian titles published by Almutawassit this year are Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid’s Qahirat Al-Yaoum Al-Daei (Cairo of the Lost Day) and the final volume of Youssef Rakha’s The Crocodiles trilogy Innaka Dhahebon Ila Al-Bar (You Are Going to the Bar). The latter, though less than 100 pages and sold at a discount, is LE250. Older books are sold at LE200 on a separate shelf.

For his part the director of the Iraqi Ebjed for Translation, Publishing and Distribution Hussein Nahaba told me, “We have novels, non-fiction titles and poetry, and the price range is LE200 LE for novels and LE100 for poetry — after the discount, of course.” It was cheering to see people buying the latter.

I skipped over to Hall 1 where the Egyptian publishers were. It was busier here. The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, which took up the full breadth of the space, was especially busy. It sold books at LE150-LE200 at discounts. Titles worth buying included Tager Al-Hekayat (The Tales Merchant) a collection of very short stories by Hassan Abdel-Mawgoud and Al-Ustaz Bashir Al-Kohli (Mr. Bashir Al-Kohli), a novel about a deluded PE teacher by Mina Adel Gayed. The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House also offers the works of the Dean of Arabic Literature Taha Hussein and three new novels by women: Maqamat Al-Ghadab (States of Wrath) by Safaa Al-Naggar, Thalath Torouq Lel Saada (Three Ways for Happiness) by Howaida Saleh and Amaliyet Tagmil (Plastic Surgery) by Zeinab Afifi.

Though selling compelling books at LE10-LE30, the General Organisations of Cultural Palaces — subsidised by the state — there was hardly anyone there. Perhaps there is a charm to capitalism after all.

Al-Karma Publishing House had a giant booth gathering huge number of publications with significant discounts on titles like Odeib fel Taaera (Oedipus on the Plane) by Mohamed Salmawy, Abdel-Rahman Al-Gabarty by the late Salah Eissa, and Mawt Al-Allam: Al-Maaroufa Shabian Bi Mozakerat Mahmoud Ghazala (The Death of the World: Famously Known as the Memoirs of Mahmoud Ghazala) by Abdel-Reheim Kamal.

As for Al-Mahrousa Publishing House, it is offering novelist Nael Al-Toukhi’s latest, Deyouk wa Katakit (Roosters and Chicks), a 744-page monster spanning Cairo, Kuwait and Berlin that revolves around an interview with a poet.

The Chinese-funded Bayt ElHekma publishing house includes a book by the late poet Mohab Nasr Al-Hekaya Ala Hafat Al-Naoum Al-Kabir (The Tale on the Edge of the Great Sleep), a novel by Mohamed Gebreil, Safinet Al-Geziry (Al-Geziry’s Ship), and  a play by the  late Abul-Ela Al-Salamouny, Al-Hob fi Midan Al-Tahrir (Love in Tahrir Square).

Other highlights include Ahmed Al-Fakharany’s latest Al-Mashaa Al-Azim (The Great Walker), published by Al-Shorouk Publishing House, about the journey of the ambitious novelist Mohammed Al-Aawar and the ghost of his late godfather, the forgotten novelist Farag Al-Kafrawi. While leafing through it, two young women told me they were very careful with what they bought now because they could only afford two books each.

Then my friends and I trekked back to the car in the rain.

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