It was a regular hot summer noon in Cairo when, instead of barricading themselves in air-conditioned shelters, people lined up at the Egypt International Exhibition Center (EIEC), e-tickets ready on their mobile phones while volunteers received them with infrared thermometers and sanitizers. They emerged out of dedicated buses that had picked them up from various points in the city, and the effect of green spaces with a fountain and food courts outside was calming. Masked under the slogan “Social distancing saves life”, with plenty of sanitizer dispensers everywhere, people entered the 52nd Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF).
Despite the dramatic change in the fair dates due to the pandemic, it was clear that even the smallest details had been attended to; both publishers and visitors (up to 140,000, the maximum allowed, on the second day) were made comfortable. Haitham Al-Haj Ali, the president of General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), collaborated closely with the Ministry of Health to ensure it. Founded in 1969, CIBF is the largest and oldest book fair in the Arab world. In 2006 it was ranked the second largest, after Frankfurt. And it was held in 2020 despite the pandemic. This year travel restrictions did not prevent the biggest Arab publishers from showing up with their wares. For many Arab countries affected by war, political, and economic unrest, CIBF is the biggest opportunity to buy as well as sell books and keep up with the latest titles.
According to the Libyan publisher Fathi Bin Issa, an old-time regular at the fair whose Al-Kon Library was founded in 2020, “Despite the difficult circumstances in Libya, we’ve proved our love of life by establishing this publishing house. Joining CIBF was essential to explore the regional market. We made all our bookings and went through all the procedures online, and everything is appealing: the space is huge, well organised and comfortable; all a publisher’s needs are made available.” He believes the number of the visitors during the day may be lower than in the previous years because of the heat, but starting from 5 pm and up until closing time at 10 pm, that number increases and it becomes rewarding.
For his part Ali Owen, the president of the Libyan Publishers Union, is happy with the number of visitors. “It proves that the decision to hold this round was right after all.” In addition to the few Libyan booths in the CIBF, many Libyan publishers are represented through the Libyan ministry of culture: “Distributing Libyan books outside the country is very important to us, especially after all that has been happening in Libya for a decade. Book fairs are still the most important opportunity for distribution in the region.’’
The Iraqi house Shahrayar was established three years ago, and it used to be represented through other publishers’ booths. This year, they decided to have their own. “Although selling our books through other agencies is less expensive for a new and relatively small publishing house, to have our own booth with our name at a big event like CIBF is worth the difference,” Safa Riyadh, the founder and the director of Shahrayar says. “It is the biggest book fair in the Arab world, where you meet publishers and visitors from all over the world. It adds a lot to us in terms of networking and having credit on the Arabic book market.” Sales, for him, are a minor consideration compared to branding his venture. Riyadh is especially proud of publishing seven books by the Egypt-born American literary theorist and writer Ihab Habib Hassan (1925- 2015): “We contributed to making him known to Arab readers.” He is also proud of publishing the works of two Iraqis: Luay Hamza Abbas and Muhammad Khudayyir.
Bakr Zidan, the owner of the Nablus-based Shamel for publishing, is also the secretary of the Palestinian Publishers Association. For him, considering the deteriorating political conditions in Palestine, CIBF is an opportunity for Palestinian book traders to provide their local readers with the latest titles. “It is a rare opportunity for us because Egypt is our biggest window. To have CIBF four months late was a challenge but we are more than grateful for it.” Despite all the shipping difficulties faced by Palestinians, he could not miss the opportunity. But his booth at CIBF also included work from four other publishing houses. “I also brought with me a long wish list of books requested by individuals in Palestine.”
Zidan believes that participating in CIBF is a form of cultural resistance. “It is very important for Palestinians to have their voice heard outside of their narrow borders and distributing our books at such a big event plays this role”. He is especially proud of publishing Al Boyout (The Houses), a novel by the Palestinian writer and freed prisoner Wedad Al-Barghouti. “She writes about the Israeli demolition of Palestinian property through her experience of her own house being demolished. That is what we want the world to know about Palestine. That is cultural resistance.”
As for Abdul Aziz Dendis the owner of Dar Al-Emad in Hebron, Palestine, he feels that CIBF may be the only source of books in Palestine. “It is impossible for us in Palestine to have the same choices at any other book fair,” he says. As a regular participant in the CIBF, he also believes that moving the fair from its previous location at Nasr City to the newly established Egypt International Exhibitions Center was a helpful step. “In this space we save a lot of time that was wasted in the previous, less organised location. This is great.”
For Abdul-Aleem Ahmed Al-Hazmi, the owner of Khalid Ibn Al-Walid for publishing and distribution in Sanaa, Yemen, has participated in CIBF for 20 years now. “This is not the only book fair in Arab world in which I take part, but for me CIBF is the most important market for Yemeni publications. To come here is to reach all the Arabs,” he says. One of the largest target audiences for his books, he says, are Yemeni residents in Egypt, in addition to the academic institutions. “The war in Yemen destroyed almost everything, it also destroyed the normal means of shipping books out of the country. The Yemeni book fair is suspended, and many publishing houses closed down…” Thus this is also an important opportunity to buy books to take home. “It was a great decision to hold this round. The loss would’ve been immense.”
Wael Kiwan, the owner of Dar Kiwan in Damascus, Syria says that CIBF is the biggest in terms of the number of visitors: “We used to call it the 5 million visitor fair.” And, despite the effect of the pandemic – Europe- and US-based distributors, for example, not showing up – this year is especially important, he says: “To show up in the market is better than not to, in every case.” He is especially happy with publishing more children’s books: “For us children’s books are the future because, while many adults are moving to digital and audio formats, parents are keen to encourage their kids to make a better connection with the paper and spend less time on screens.”
Accoring to Amnah Trabolsy, the representative of the Tunisian General Book Authority, which is presenting 550 titles from 18 publishers, “Many publishing houses were unable to have their own booths here so they sent their publications with the Tunisian Publishers Association as they don’t want to miss the opportunity. I thought people would be afraid because of the pandemic, but what I see here is astonishing.”
Representing the Lebanese Dar Al Kalam and the Jordanian Dar Al-Rayaheen, Omar Ahmed appreciates the special measures taken by CIBF for the Lebanese publishers. “It was decided that the Lebanese publishers would be able to rent booths at the same rates as Egyptian publishers, and this is a great decision considering the economic hardship in Lebanon’’. Although online sales are rising, for Omar Ahmed, book fairs are still the main chunk of the book market in the Arab world. “The shipping prices for online sales are much higher, and the result is a more expensive book for the reader.”
Gata Yemba Willow, who founded Willows House one year ago, is the first female publisher in South Sudan. CIBF is the first book fair she has been to. “It is not only about selling books, but to show ourselves to the world, to network, to know more about the market,” she says, “and to present a brighter image of South Sudan. We publish books from South Sudan but also books by Sudanese writers from the north. Culture connects people, it is the real and natural bond.” Gata is especially proud to introduce the complete works of the Sudanese fiction writer Abdel-Aziz Baraka Sakin, the winner of the 2020 Arab Literature Prize, awarded by the Institute du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris, and also the latest book by the Sudanese writer Salah Al Bashir.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 July, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly