Fatima al-Boudi on the Future of Censorship: ‘Egyptians Won’t Let This Happen’

At Ahram Online, Mary Mourad has an intersting Q&A with Dar al-Ain publisher Fatima al-Boudi.

Along with the more well-known Dar al-Merit and the much bigger Dar al-Shorouk, al-Ain is one of Egypt’s leading independent publishers. Al-Ain was founded in 2000 with a focus on scientific publications, as this was the dream of the doctor in biochemistry.

Later, al-Boudi’s house found the need to diversify and branched out to literature. Recently, al-Ain has raised its profile by winning a number of awards. Khaled al-Berry’s Middle Eastern Dance, for instance, was published by al-Ain and shortlisted for last year’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

Mourad asked al-Boudi about her “worst surprises” in the publishing business, and there were several. First, distribution:

It’s quite a challenge working in Egypt where the publisher has a big role to play in the distribution and sales of books. Yet, for the business to break even, it’s not enough just to sell in bookstores. We have to join fairs, both national and international ones, and cooperate in events, and all this takes up time and effort from our main message.

Balsam Saad, owner of Dar al-Balsam and the al-Balsam Bookstore, has said that it makes sense in Egypt for publishers to run their own bookstores. Dar al-Shorouk, for instance, has a chain of bookstores. Recently, al-Boudi opened up Al-Ain bookshop in Alexandria (pictured).

Al-Boudi also spoke about censorship and red tape:

There are also the bureaucratic issues, such as the whole deal with the Sons of Gabalawy book [by Ibrahim Farghali] that was nearly banned by the censorship authorities.

Al-Boudi also could have mentioned censorship at book fairs around the region; for instance, at last year’s Kuwait Book Fair, a number of Al Ain titles were banned. However, al-Boudi said censorship sometimes has served to make books more popular. “There are salesmen within Kuwait able, through their connections, to bring in what books they want. Many of our books that were banned not only entered the country but were even discussed in seminars there.”

Until an author-friend told me differently earlier this year, I thought Dar al-Ain was one of the few Egyptian publishing houses that did not ask authors to “contribute” to the cost of producing their novels. But no, al-Boudi also asks authors to help float the cost of publishing their books. She told Ahram Online:

I must stress here that this contribution has nothing to do with the quality of book — even big names are asked to contribute — but it’s rather a reflection of the interest in the publishing house and therefore a keenness to contribute to its success.

At the end of the Q&A, al-Boudi talks about the tides of change—which shes says have not affected the publishers union, and her hopes that religious conservatism will not put freedom of expression at risk. “I’m pretty sure,” she says, “Egyptians won’t let this happen.”

However, she adds that, “we’re in a situation of attack and retreat; times when freedom is pushed forcefully, and others when it’s attacked and withdrawn. It’s important to see that the risk is on everyone; we’re in the same boat altogether and have to learn to cooperate.”