Dr. Asfour at a different event.

Cairo’s fifth annual novel conference opened this Sunday at the Opera House.

The theme this year: “Whither the Arabic Novel?” (Of course, other venues have preferred, for their translations: “The Arabic Novel: Where To?”  or “The Arabic Novel: Where Is It Going?“)

The conference was opened by the always-busy Dr. Gaber Asfour, who tossed out a number of issues for authors to chew on. Interestingly, Ahram Online‘s Mary Mourad reports that he “questioned the lack of science fiction in Arabic novels,” although apparently his reason was that sci fi has made for international bestsellers—not that science fiction creates interesting new ways to depict our worlds.

Heba Helmy at Al Masry Al Youm wrote about the “Freedom of Literature and Religion” symposium at the conference. Highlights include:

On Syria, author Mamdouh Azzam noted: “There is a freedom ceiling in our country.”

Author Mohamed Badwi said that state censorship is one thing, but “the sensitive nature” of issues like religion imposes additional restrictions on authors.

Ghadir Galal al-Shorbagi talked about escaping restrictions by writing online, and asserted that “e-books have created a broad spectrum of readers, particularly from the younger generation.”

Al-Shorbaghi, on whether Egypt enjoys the right to freedom of expression: “Absolutely no.”

However, conference presenter and Palestinian critic Faisal Daraj, quoted by the Jordanian paper Al Dustour, had taken a positive view of political repression, saying that repression has contributed to the growth of the Arabic novel.

I, unfortunately, have not been in attendance. Nevertheless (the show goes on!) and, at the end of the day, organizers should be announcing the winner of the conference’s Fifth International Creative Fiction prize.

Meanwhile, the Mystery of the 43rd Cairo International Book Fair…

People hanging out at the fairgrounds at last year's Cairo International Book Fair

We’ve known for some time that this year’s Cairo International Book Fair (Cairo’s Wild Book Rumpus) would not take place at the fair grounds. But I—at least—had not heard where it would be held.

Now the mystery is solved! The book fair will begin on Jan. 26, 2010 at the rather nice Cairo International Convention Center in Nasr City, and is set to run until the 6th of Feb. Perhaps being at the Convention Center will mean a change from the previous (non-book) festival atmosphere, although no big changes or big ideas seem to have been announced.

Attendance makes the CIBF one of the world’s biggest (2 million), although many come just for the concessions and the socializing.

The fair will celebrate major names like Egyptian Nobel winners Ahmed Zuweil and Naguib Mahfouz. Organizers say they’ll commemorate the 50-year anniversary of Beiram al-Tonsi’s death and the 80-year anniversary of Salah Jaheen’s birth. “Chinese representatives” will be the guests of honor (although which sort of Chinese authors is a question).

The change in location, at least, will be interesting.