More than a gala

Dina Ezzat , Tuesday 6 Feb 2024

The Cairo International Book Fair is proving to be a defining cultural moment, reports Dina Ezzat

Amal Dunkul
Amal Dunkul


On Tuesday evening, the 55th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) ended its annual two-week feast which offered visitors the chance to buy, on some very good discounts, all kinds of volumes put out by over 1000 publishing houses from all over the world.

However, beyond the attendance and sales figures, CIBF has proven to be in many ways the “prime time” moment on the nation’s cultural agenda. “This is the ultimate cultural moment of the year,” says Khaled Loutfy, founder and chair of the bookshop-publisher Tanmia. “In fact, CIBF is one of the most important book fairs around the region and this is precisely why we work on an annual cultural festival around the time of the book fair.”

Originally launched as a bookshop that aimed to expand the scope of books published across the Arab region, whether originally produced in Arabic or translated into Arabic, Tanmia has evolved into an ambitious publishing business that aims to introduce new talents and unconventional work. It has certainly become a key destination for avid readers who pursue titles “off the beaten track” or hard to find elsewhere in town.

However, for a range of reasons, Tanmia’s request for participation in CIBF has been systematically denied for the last six years. “We think it is very unfortunate for us to be away from this great annual cultural gala,” says Loutfy, “and, in a way, we try to subscribe to the cultural hype it creates by having our annual Tanmia Festival around the CIBF agenda.”

To this end, Tanmia offers a range of titles, including the most recent volumes by many publishing houses participating in CIBF. It also introduces its own new titles – whether  published independently or jointly with Arab publishers.

What counts most for the “Tanmia community”, as dedicated customers have labelled it, are the cultural events that the Tanmia Festival hosts. A key event of this year’s festival took place on Thursday (1 February) when Tanmia hosted an event to celebrate one of Egypt’s most iconic 20th-century poets: Amal Dunkul.

Born in 1940, Dunkul passed away in 1983 after making his mark on poetry in Egypt and across the Arab world. His best-known poem “La Tusalih” (Do not reconcile), which he wrote in December 1976, almost on the eve of Anwar Sadat’s then controversial pursuit of a unilateral peace with Israel, was what granted him the title of “Prince of Refusers” (along the lines of Prince of Poets).

The event revisited the works of this prominent political poet of the second half of the 20th century in the light of Al-Ganoubi (The Southerner — a reference to Dunkul’s Upper Egyptian identity), a concise biography of Dunkul written by critic Abla Al-Rowainy, his wife in the last four years of his life.

The first edition of Al-Ganoubi appeared in 1985. A new edition appeared with Dar Al-Shorouk, the publisher of Dunkul’s complete works, in 2018. This year, Dar Al-Shorouk published a second edition of the book. Al-Ganoubi engages with Dunkul’s pride and moodiness, his sensitive, kind but angry spirit, and above all his journey as a poet haunted by anxieties, “who rarely saw the sun as he turned his nights into days … and who hated middle grounds and declined all grey areas” even though he was a member of “the generation of defeats’’, as the poet Ahmed Abdel-Mo’eti Hegazi called the Sixties Generation. The complete works of Dunkul were on sale.

The bulk of the audience were born many years after the death of the author associated in their minds with “La Tusalih”. Tanmia produced mugs and other merchandise with portraits of Dunkul and a lines of his poems. A documentary on Dunkul was also screened and some items of a private collection of the poet’s drafts and books displayed.

“I cannot say that we chose to celebrate Amal Dunkul, such a legendary poet, only because of the attention his poem ‘La Tusalih’ is being paid with the overriding anger over the Israeli war on Gaza,” Loutfi said. He added that Dunkul, who passed away about 40 years ago, “deserves to be celebrated for his remarkable talent and not just for one poem, no matter how iconic”.

The younger generations, Loutfy said, deserve a proper introduction to Dunkul’s work. In an innovative initiative, Tanmia announced the introduction of selections of Dunkul’s work to children in books with illustrations by Sahar Abdallah.

The Dunkul event was perhaps the highlight of the Tanmia Festival this year. However, it was one of many. On Monday (5 February), Tanmia the prominent Lebanese writer Alawiyah Sobh who discussed her work with Egyptian writer and journalist Sayed Mahmoud.

Born into a Shia family in Beirut in 1955, Sobh has written extensively on identity as a complex and emotional concept. Sobh’s writings are easily labelled feminist. Her first novel Mariam Wal Hekaya (Mariam, Keeper of the Stories) came out in 2002. In Egypt, her most famous novel is Esmoho Al-Gharam (It Is Called Love, 2009), which was shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2010.

A day earlier, Tanmia hosted Syrian author Rima Bali with writer Mohamed Samir Nada. Bali’s novel Khatam Suleiman (Soloman’s Ring), on the IPAF longlist this year, was published by Tanmia. Her most recent volume is Nai fi Al-Takht Al-Gharbi (A Flute in a Western Orchestra). Born in Aleppo in 1969, Bali writes fiction loaded with politics and history.

“It was important for us to get the readers of Tanmia to have encounters with prominent authors from across the Arab world, especially those whose books are available at our bookstores,” Loutfy said.

Another particularly well-attended event that Tanmia organised was the signing of the prominent author Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid’s most recent novel Qaherat Al Yawm Al Da’i (Cairo of a Lost Day), published by AlMutawassit. In his novel, Abdel-Meguid recalls a day in the contemporary history of the capital that was supposed to be taken over by political protests which never happened. Abdel-Meguid told the younger novelist Doha Assi about what Cairo looked like on a day when the streets were empty, in a political panic with high police security

The politics and history of Cairo also came up in a seminar with historians Emad Abou Ghazi and Hassan Hafez, who echoed a narrative similar to Abdel-Meguid’s on public engagement or the lack thereof, on the evolution of the city through consecutive political moments.

Giving space to new authors was also on the agenda: Afnan Fahid, Mai Fatthi, Nourhan El-Bassiyouni and Moustafa Afifi each talked to novelist Nora Nagi about their first novels.

Younger writers have been central for this year’s CIBF. Almost every big publishing house offered its readers a title by one or more writers who launched their literary careers a decade or two ago.

Of those were Aly Kotb, whose title Introductions of Taha Hussein, was put out by Beit Al-Hekma. The 2023 CIBF celebrated the Dean of Arabic Literature to mark 50 years since his passing away in October 1973. This year, Taha Hussein was still in fashion with more publishers reprinting his works.

“I think rereading Taha Hussein is incomplete if one does not read the introductions he wrote to books by other authors because I think these introductions are as literary and intellectually significant as his own works,” said Kotb. In his volume, Kotb collected a little under 80 introductions of Taha Hussein’s. He then wrote an introduction to the introductions and added footnotes to each introduction to contextualise the prose historically.

“I think that it was important to have this book especially for CIBF, not just in its capacity as the leading cultural event of the year, but also because it was the venue that re-launched Taha Hussein with reprints of his works,” Kotb said.

Himself a novelist, Kotb has launched his novels at CIBF since 2010. Most recently, his 2023 volume Moulakhas kol ma Sabaq (A Summary of All the Above) features six short stories by key modern Egyptian writers, to which he added text. “It was a challenge and an inspiration to add to the works of Tawfik Al-Hakim, Yehiya Hakki, Nabuib Mahfouz, Ihssan Abdel-Koddous, Youssef Idris and Khairy Bishara,” he said.

The success of this collection of stories on stories, Kotb said, got some readers interested in previous works. “I think this is where CIBF is most purposeful for our generation as new writers; it offers a venue for introductions.”

Kotb has received several literary awards for his work. However, it was upon the repeated display of his volumes in CIBF and other book fairs that take place in other governorates of Egypt that he generated the most attention.

Injy Hodeib, the author of two very successful psychological thrillers, Maqtal Mariam Al-Hawi (The Killing of Mriam Al-Hawi) and Akhir Kobeiat Qahwa (The Last Cup of Coffee). The latter had been self-published on a small scale before it was picked up by Al-Karma this year.

Hodeib essentially credits social media reading groups with the attention her work first received. However, she adds that wider exposure was in part due to CIBF. “There was room to introduce psychological thrillers; it was not something that was there in the market in general, not just in CIBF.”

Born in the early 1990s and 1980s, Kotb and Hodeib are engineers by profession who pursued their passion for writing at different points. Their volumes were among those that captured the attention not just of younger but also of older readers looking for fresh perspectives at CIBF.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 8 February, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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