Can Cairo’s Book Fair Compete?

An official PR photo from

Certain loyalties are impossible to shed. As I roamed the aisles of the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair (ADIBF) last week, I had to doff my hat in recognition of the seamless, intelligent, highly air-conditioned event they had assembled with its many wonderful writers, illustrators, tech folks, administrators, and publishers. But I couldn’t doff it too far. First, I was cold. Second, I was always thinking of Cairo.

Nearly every time I talked to fair organizers — including when I had a chance to sit down briefly with fair director  Dr. Jumaa al-Qubaisi — I was trying to get at Cairo’s position in all this. How could Cairo, and other Arab cities (Amman, Beirut, Casablanca, plus plus plus), create better book fairs?

You know the old saw: Cairo writes, Beirut publishes, Baghdad reads. Cairo still writes (although Beirut sometimes writes with more craft) and Beirut still publishes (although Cairo can compete here, no doubt). But after that, the saying stumbles. It’s painful and infuriating to consider what’s happened to literacy in Baghdad.

The saying needs an addition, too: And the Emirates does publishing’s business.

This far-reaching business is done in two cities: in Sharjah (in November) and in Abu Dhabi (in March), although one British journalist somewhat grouchily told ADIBF director  al-Qubaisi, during our group sit-down, that, “British publishers need one fair to emerge.” These publishers weren’t, she said, willing to make two trips to the region each year.

Al-Qubaisi indicated that he didn’t see the Abu Dhabi fair’s primary role as a “bazaar,” like most other fairs in the region. ADIBF has maintained its book-selling side, he said, because “the distribution problem is really putting pressure on the book fair.”

But as more and more people can buy their books in bookstores, this aspect of the fair shrinks. If booksellers could (by on-demand publishing, e-pub, or other means) create a solution whereby Cairenes can buy Moroccan novels, and Jordanians can buy Algerian works, without the fairs, then the “bazaar” aspect would become a relic of the past. Indeed, Cairo’s wealthier classes no longer need to attend the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) to buy most books, because they can just pop into an Alef, Diwan, Kotob Khan, Shorouk, AUCP Bookstore, or Balsam.

Publishers told me that, moreover, there were far fewer regional visitors at this year’s Cairo fair. Arabs and even some Europeans used to travel to the CIBF: no more. And as for literary events at the Cairo fair…. Well. They’re often just too hard to find.

It wouldn’t make sense for Cairo to create a cookie-cutter replica of Abu Dhabi, which is in some ways a replica of the Frankfurt fair: business, rights-selling, training, and deal-making. Cairo doesn’t need that sort of fair right now. Logistics aside (organization, government & popular support, money), it simply wouldn’t suit.

Cairo already has some fantastic local events, such as al-Fann Midan. But what sort of international event could Cairo make (and why)?

What does Cairo have to give the literary region and world? Papyrus, pyramids, and paper, yea verily, but also:

Cairo has experienced, smart, creative, award-winning, generous authors.

Cairo has glamour.

Cairo sits at the cross-roads of Africa, Asia, and Europe. This matters. Who wants to haul all the way to the US for a fair?

Cairo has smart and fierce young academics, who are savvy about the intersections between literature and other fields of human endeavor.

Cairo has art. Cairo has some terrific cartoonists and budding graphic novelists who could rock the global scene. Who hasn’t seen the murals on the walls of downtown Cairo and swooned?

Cairo has experienced publishers and innovative book designers.

Cairo hath funny. Why the world doesn’t congregate here to get some of that, I surely don’t know.

Plus, plus, plus.

What types of literary events could benefit Cairo? I wouldn’t turn down any sort of literary event, but a few thoughts:

Those that bring in more interaction between local, regional, and global authors and artists, so they can exchange ideas and feed one another creatively. Talk through the challenges of literature in these here times. The possibilities.

More opportunities for young authors to be mentored, particularly from a craft perspective. International writing workshops. Nadwas.

More help making and distributing inexpensive literature. Graphic novels – I was told in Abu Dhabi – are not the expensive medium that Cairo publishers sometimes make them out to be. They can be done fast, easy, and on the cheap, and you can teach yourself to draw as you go. The perfect “in the moment” medium. It can be Xeroxed in someone’s basement. It can evade censors. It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s….

Children’s book fairs, book readings, international book competitions.

Plus, plus, plus.

What sorts of international literary events could Egypt create?

Luxor LitFest , Korba Children’s BookFest, Alexandria Literary Nadwa, Cairo International ComicsFest, Faisal International Poetry Festival, Haram International HumorFest, plus, plus, plus…?

Editor’s note: This is the beginnings of an answer to a question/topic thrown out by Dr. Samia Mehrez. Add your thoughts, too.