Cairo International Book Fair at 50: New Life or More of the Same?

In the last thirty years, book fairs have sprawled across the region, continuing as both cultural and sales events. The Casablanca and Baghdad International Book Fairs are going on now, the big Muscat International Book Fair opens February 20, and the huge Riyadh Book Fair is set to follow a few weeks later. But the mother of them all is the Cairo International Book Fair, which celebrated the big 5-0 this year by moving to a new location: 

By Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė

Photo credit: Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė.

The oldest and most-selling Arab book fair, held in Cairo each January, is definitely a landmark event in the region. This year, the event generated even more attention than usual. Controversy erupted as soon as the decision was announced to move the fair from its usual Nasr City fairgrounds to an exhibition center in the suburban the 5th Settlement. Many fair regulars received the news with apprehension, worried that the business-like environment of the new location would irreversibly strip the event from its familial, cozy, and relaxed atmosphere of the Nasr City fairgrounds. Many feared that the move would exclude less-privileged readers and publishers, since the new location is situated miles away from metro lines. Some decided to forgo the fair, such as its regular participants from the Ezbekiyya market specialized in selling cheap second-hand books who organized instead “a parallel book fair” in their spot in Soor el-Ezbekiyya. Others, however, waited for the fair with anticipation that any change was in the interest of culture.

I prepared to go to the fair with a sense of excitement and anxiety. I hadn’t visited the fair since 2014 and now I was lost in the multiple channels of communication set up by the organizers. Going through its official website, Facebook, and Twitter accounts, I fetched bits and pieces of information on transportation assigned to the fair, floor plans of publishers’ booths and PDFs of its cultural program.

The worries proved to have been unnecessary. At my arrival to the Abd al-Mun’am Riyadh Square, one of the locations where buses were set to depart for the fair, a half-empty bus was waiting that would bring me to the fair for a five-pound fee. The rest of the information was available at my arrival: the huge floor plans were hanging at the entry to the exhibition halls, and hundreds of volunteers were there to guide me. I managed to get hold on a well-designed book of the cultural program, and a friend talked a volunteer into giving away the list of participating publishers that had been available online but was unreadable and lacked a page. Clearly, it was more efficient to fetch information from people than from the official channels assigned to that purpose.

Photo credit: Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė.

As a scholar researching how literary sociability affects writing in contemporary Cairo, I was naturally drawn into the second floor of exhibition halls where cultural symposiums were taking place. Discussions organized at the margin of the fair gave a concentrated image of Cairo’s intellectual scene, through which you could detect the tendencies of State cultural politics, gauge the influence of particular critics, and observe rising literary stars. Each of the fifteen conference rooms was assigned to a different cultural activity. The main room brought together cultural officials and historians to discuss State cultural strategies, history and canonical writers; there were two rooms dedicated to fiction; one for the recitation of poetry; a room for covering African cultural production; a space dedicated to youth culture (which included a discussion on the electronic street music of Mahraganat); two theater spaces; a cinema hall; a space for workshops; a room for visual arts and a folklore corner running a non-stop performance of the famous epic al-Sira al-Hilaliyya.

One of the most fascinating sessions was dedicated to the three historical Cairo’s publishing houses, which can be rightfully called the forefathers of Egypt’s publishing business: Dar al-Ma’arif, founded in 1890, Maktabet Misr ran by al-Sahhar family since 1932 and Nahdet Misr established in 1938. Bringing together their current representatives, the session was indicative of different strategies that a private publisher could adopt to survive Nasserist nationalizations in the early 1960s.

Photo credit: Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė.

While Dar al-Ma’arif became one of the most important among the government houses used to publish its official releases, Nahdet Misr took the “capitalist” path and diversified its activities into advertising, trade, and digital solutions. Perhaps the biggest victim of Nasser’s period was Maktabet Misr. The house that published Naguib Mahfouz when no one else wanted his works did not survive Nasser’s policies and gradually sank into decline. Today, the decline is visible in the fact that a significant part of its production consists of religious and educational books – the sectors that bring the most substantial profits in Egypt today as in the past.

This session was also one of the most passionate ones, since it brought into surface the difficulties undermining the publishing sector in today’s Egypt. The audience threw accusations at the ministry of culture, the Publishers’ Syndicate, and the state, complaining of the rampant book piracy, plagiarism, corruption of publishing houses and the abundance of poor-quality literature produced by amateur writers. As the recent book by Said Fayez explains, the post-2005 Egypt saw an unprecedented growth in publishers prompted by the increasing numbers of aspiring writers willing to self-publish. This change turned the publishing into a fairly profitable business swallowing creative energies of visual artists, culture producers, and young entrepreneurs. But despite these developments, the regulations of the market remained unchanged since the 1960s, leaving a zone for shady businesses. (Bestseller: Hikayat min al-Qira’a, 2019).

Photo credit: Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė.

Since I haven’t been to the Cairo Book Fair since 2014, I can hardly judge of change introduced by the relocation of the fair. But most of the writers, critics and organizers of cultural activities I spoke to praised the order, cleanliness, and the organization of the event, that made them feel like respected members of Egypt’s cultural community, a simple aspiration that the failing sanitation and the litter-covered grassland of the old Nasr City fairground left unsatisfied.

Yet all the comfort provided by the new location came at the cost of the available space. As Mostafa Mohie from Mada pointed out, the 5th Settlement’s fairground is more than two times smaller than the old one. The smaller space meant higher prices to rent a booth, which led to the exclusion of small publishers. As one publisher explained me, the expensive rent and increased costs of transporting books alienated around two thirds of all publishers, including himself. At the fair, the lack of space was definitely felt by publishers: instead of spacious tents that in the old fair allowed them to decorate and arrange the space according to their needs, now they were confined to rectangular-shaped uniform stands in which they struggled to fit in an extra chair to receive guests.

Photo credit: Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė.

Yet, the impression of limited space transformed once I moved to the exhibition halls allotted to governmental and foreign representation. Compared to the crowded halls 1 and 2, the halls 3 and 4 occupied by Azhar, governmental bodies, foreigners, and state-run publishers were paradisiacal. Here, the governmental and foreign bodies had spacious lounges with comfortable armchairs and sofas ready to receive important guests. Taking up around half of the Hall 4, Saudi wing had something resembling a garden surrounded by neatly decorated booths. Instead of books, their stands were loaded with flowers and promotional flyers of the country’s cross-border city Neom project. The participation of Egyptian institutions, such the Egyptian police and the Armed forces, whose booth was decorated with sculptures, military high-reliefs and paintings followed a similar logic: they were there not to sell books but to represent the state.

The representational aspect of the fair is definitely not new, but its expansion at the detriment of the space allocated for publishers is unprecedented. What changed with the relocation of the fair was the identity of the event. Instead of a festival-like book market which brought together various types of cultural players in Nasr City, the fair became an event of cultural diplomacy. Instead of being part of the chaotic but colorful Egypt’s cultural sector, the relocation placed the fair within the universe of corporate culture. Instead of the giant book market, it became an exhibition.

The fair clearly mobilized a huge amount of energy, talent, and resources, and was definitely impressive. But such an approach to the fair falls well within the larger concern of the Egyptian regime for its image — projected both outside and inside the country. In a sense, the refurbishment of the Cairo Book Fair is an echo of the World Youth Forum organized since 2017 as a platform of exchange between the youth and policy-makers. Both events selected their participants based on presentability and how they would represent respectively Egyptian youth and culture. Yet, these events hide more than they show: under their polished surface lurks a less shiny reality of the absence of political freedom, repression, and economic hardship.

Giedrė Šabasevičiūtė is a postdoctoral researcher in the Oriental Institute in Prague. She is a sociologist focusing on the intersections between literary writing and modes of intellectual sociability in contemporary Cairo. Currently, she is preparing a manuscript on Sayyid Qutb’s literary biography, and sometimes writes a blog.