Tonight, academic, novelist, and translator Elliott Colla will be joining a panel of poets, activists and scholars speaking about poetical and political freedoms at George Mason University’s Fall for the Book festival. This is part of an ongoing DC-wide contribution to the Mutanabbi Street Starts Here DC Project. In advance of his talk, Colla put together some memories of buying books in Cairo over the last 29 years:
There are some wonderful moments in it; read them all. My favorites include this one from 1989:
Everybody tells me that I can find the novel if I go to Madbuli’s Bookshop in Midan Talaat Harb and ask for it discreetly. I go there and linger suspicious around the various sections of the bookstore. It’s like I’m looking for porn. Different employees come to ask if they can help. Finally, I gather up the courage and say, “They tell me you have copies of Awlad Haritna.” The man doesn’t even look at me. He mutters, “They’re wrong whoever they are,” and he keeps dusting the pile of books in front of him.
Cairo Book Fair in June 1994:
A group of Egyptian literary critics sit on a panel and discuss the Libyan Brother Leader’s collection of short stories entitled, The Village, the Village! The Land, the Land! We laugh as some critics talk about how sophisticated Qaddafi’s writing is. We wonder how much they were paid. We look around, but Ahmed is not with us. Later on, we learn he has been arrested for shoplifting. He tried to run away when they caught him, but his coat had more than 30 books in it.
And this one from the Ezbekiyya book market in 1998:
I thumb through pages of erotic stories that are accompanied by photographs of naked women in suggestive poses. I look at the date on the periodical: 1934. I look at the next, same thing. And then more. Finally, I look up and find him smiling at me. “I know you are not only researching literature but also some impolite things,” he says with a sly smile.
The trove costs me every thing I had in my wallet, and still I owe Mustafa. On my way home, I go to meet Shehata al-Aryan—the Egyptian poet and novelist—for tea. I pull out all the nudie magazines I’ve just purchased and say, “Can you believe this?!” “I never knew this stuff existed,” he murmurs over and over. “This is an important source. We need to do something serious with this. Can I borrow this and show it to an editor. Together we might figure out a way to republish this as a historical document.” I wrap up the magazines for Shehata. We agree to meet up, as we always do, a couple days later. Shehata doesn’t come, and he stops answering my emails. Years later, when I finally see him again, he apologizes for disappearing. He was in the midst of a messy divorce. When I ask about the magazines, he claims he gave them back to me. I never see them again.