When Cairo Calls: What Worked (and Didn’t) at the Cairo Book Fair’s First Professional Program

For the first time this year, the Cairo International Book Fair staged a professional program for international publishers ahead of — and in conjunction with — its annual book fair:

Sherif Bakr, the organizing force behind Cairo Calling, also made sure there was plenty of local flavor.
Sherif Bakr, the organizing force behind Cairo Calling, also made sure there was plenty of local flavor.

Several participants were interviewed about their experiences with the professional program, “Cairo Calling,” as well as with the Cairo International Book Fair, for Akhbar Al Adab. The fair this year opened on January 28 and ran through Feb. 12, drawing in record crowds, a marked change from the 2011-2014 fairs.

Each of the “Cairo Calling” participants below approved or edited the re-translation of their comments into English:

Dorothy Aubert, Belleville éditions

“We need to make some progress in the issue of the entering crowds.

“However, the Cairo Book Fair is a significantly major event for me to attend. Its great contribution is undeniable. Here, I met some senior brand-name publishers, rising ones as well as established companies. We had direct contact and effective discussions with the publishers of all genres (fiction and non-fiction). Among the outstanding and memorable publishers were Merit, The Egyptian-Lebanese Publishing House, Kayan, Karam Youssef’s Kotob Khan, and Sherif Bakr’s Al-Arabi. Of course, we are committed to continuing a project with “Sefsafa for Publishing,” as we entered into a contract with them ahead of this book fair.

“Under this contract, we will translate some works of Arabic literature into French. The first will be Hamdy al-Gazzar’s al-Hareem (The Women). We anticipate cooperating with other houses as well, especially with Merit and The Egyptian Lebanese Publishing House.

Claudia Dobry, Manager International Projects, Frankfurt Book Fair

Regarding her opinion of this year’s fair:

I’m in charge of organizing German collective stands at international book fairs in the Middle East and Asia, and this is now the tenth time I’ve been taking part at the Cairo International Book Fair. The last four years have been difficult for Egyptian publishers and booksellers, as well as for the book fair itself. This year, it seems that the Cairo International Book Fair may return to its status as the most important book fair in the Arab world and might be on the right track.

As to negative and positive aspects of the fair:

Negative in my opinion is that the fair is still taking place in tents, since four years ago the halls were torn down and no new ones were built. Although this year, a system with stand numbers was implemented, the numbers do not appear in the exhibitors’ catalog. If you are looking for a specific publisher, it is still hard to find him on the fairground.

The positive aspect of the fair is that you can get in contact with many different people. There are, on the one hand, of course our colleagues from the Arab countries, that means publishers and booksellers who are visiting our stand. And then there are German-speaking Egyptians who have lived in Germany and looking for new literary titles in German. Other visitors are asking for books to learn German or are simply enjoying to sit in the German stand and having a rest from the exhausting fair.

On her favorite publishing house at this year’s fair:

Since I’ve been visiting the fair for many years, I also know the renowned major publishers. But my favorite this year is al-Karma, a relatively new publisher who works mainly with young writers.

Maarten Valken, Head of translations, Dutch Foundation for Literature

When I first came here, two years ago, the book fair was not as well-organized, a little bit chaotic. This year, it is definitely more organized, and it was very pleasant for me to find all the publishers for whom I was looking. During these few days, I was able to coordinate with a number of them and conduct successful interviews. However, this does not mean there don’t need to be more improvements in order to make this book fair global.

It needs more work on the organization so that the foreigners can find their destinations easily. We knew who we should contact but finding them was difficult. The situation would be easier if there was an information desk, or even booths to provide useful tips about each publisher. Qualified volunteers might perform this task perfectly. I mean, the Arab visitors can simply handle this and find their way, but we get lost. I recommend, to help us identify our locations, “you are here” signs. Personally I received a lot of help and ushering from the interpreters’ part.

For me, as a representative of the Dutch literature, I know very well that it has a small market among Arab readers. Accordingly, we try to cooperate with Arabic publishers to find enough room for us in the Arab countries, and to promote the Dutch classics all over the Arab world. As a matter of fact, we have found nearly twenty publishing houses which were interested in the Dutch translation” most notably Sherif Bakr, from Al- Arabi for Publishing and Distribution, and Kotob Khan. Although Kotob Khan is a new publisher, it has, however, a great project: the translation of The Letters of Vincent van Gogh.