Street Smart: Souq El Azbakeya, a haven for book lovers

Ahram Online, Tuesday 22 Mar 2011

Ahram Online re-visits the history of the oldest cultural centre in Egypt

The bookseller Aly El Shaer is one of the most interesting characters in the market

One has to pass by different street vendors selling watches, rings and even furry toy animals to be able to reach the book haven that is the Souq Al Azbakeya in Attaba Square.

Located by the site of the old opera house, now a car park, the book market has several different rows of booths that sell second-hand books, film posters and photographs.

Amongst the rows upon rows of stacked books, old and new, some covered with dust and others emitting a shiny glow, comics like ‘Mickey’ are placed beside literary masterpieces, religious , scientific and political books, and even some books discussing sexual problems.

As the Cairo book fair didn’t take place this year, due to the current political events in Egypt, a group of youths have organised a festival in this well-known hub of rare and cheap books. The festival began on 13 March and will end on 23 March.

Even though everything is almost the same at Azbakeya, the festival did promote the book market there, one of the oldest in Egyptian history.

According to Leslie Lababidi in her book Cairo Street Stories, during the Ottoman era Azbakeya was located in the suburbs of Cairo. It was an area where houses surrounded lakes and gardens but it underwent radical changes during the time of Khedive Ismail in 1863.

He constructed the site to emulate the Parc Moonceau in Paris, to include botanical gardens, open-air cafes and theatres. All the buildings from the Mamluk era were demolished, including the Azabk mosque, from which the area takes its name.

The Azbakeya area was fashionable during this time as it was in the vicinity of the Opera House, elegant hotels, bookstores and galleries.  It was also in this district that many foreigners and the Egyptian elite resided.

In 1926 booksellers stretched out their books along the Azbakeya fence, but were often chased away with water hoses. In 1957 they got permits and the place became a well-known cultural meeting point, visited by many writers and intellectuals.

Due to the construction of the metro station, Azbakeya was relocated in 1991 to El Darasa, but then moved back to its original location in 1998. The area is surrounded by theatres, such as the puppet theatre and El Talea. The national theatre, which was also located there, was burned down in 2008.

Ali El Shaer, a well-read and well-travelled book-seller, who comes from a family of booksellers at Azbakeya, is one of the interesting characters in the market.

I took the opportunity of sitting down and chatting with El Shaer, who in the space of thirty minutes recited a poem by Ahmed Foad Negm, marvelled about Charles Dickens’ Little Dorrit, which he had been searching for thirty years, describing to me the beauty of its sentences and the preciseness of its descriptions and showed me some yellowish, rare books that smelled of antiquity and dust, as well as cinema and theatre magazines from the 1960’s.

According to El Shaer, the books in demand change from one period to another. One can easily trace Egypt’s social history through the book trends in different periods.

“During the time of the monarchy, people were buying opposition newspapers and literary novels, in Abdel Nasser’s era Russian literature and Marxist writings were in demand, while from Sadat’s time until recently orders for religious books increased,” El Shaer said.  “In recent years, most people were coming here to buy religious books, school books or books about cooking.”

However, during these past couple of days things have changed, and people are coming to Azbakeya to buy political books and biographies on influential figures in Egypt.

“You can come here whenever you want to talk about anything,” El Shaer told me, “whether it’s politics, religion or literature.”  He likes to talk with young, bright minds and is optimistic about Egypt’s future after talking to them.



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