Nadia Wassef on Egypt’s Diwan Bookstores, 17 Years Later

Nadia Wassef, co-founder of Egypt’s Diwan Bookstore chain, which currently has six stores around the Cairo area, gave a talk last week at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair:

When the first Diwan bookshop opened in Cairo in March of 2002, it was a landmark event for many young authors, publishers, and bibliophiles. Co-founder Nadia Wassef said that the shop, on Zamalek’s central 26th of July Street, was an “immediate success, and it’s a luxury to be able to discuss why seventeen years later, since none of us knew why at the time.”

Diwan was certainly not the first bookshop in Cairo, and Wassef said she enjoyed going to bookshops as a young reader. Yet these bookshops, piled high with books that were often difficult to sort through, weren’t places where it was “conducive to spending a couple hours.” She and her sister, co-founder Hind Wassef, wanted to open a different sort of “customer-centered” bookshop that also sold music and films, and they also wanted to open a coffeeshop inside the store that would be a safe space for women.

“Ostensibly we sell books, knowledge, and cultural products,” Wassef said. But on a more fundamental level, Diwan sells “a connection and an experience… A connection with the past and aspirations for the future.”

In order to tell the Diwan story, Wassef jumped back in time to give a brief view of Egyptian cultural production — and cultural regulation — since 1952. That’s when the nascent post-colonial state began to take over large sections of literary production, with an aim of putting out a “book every six hours.” She gave her bird’s-eye view on book production in the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and — by the time the Wassefs opened their first Diwan in 2002 — noted that large parts of the book ecosystem were government-run. Where it wasn’t government-run, it was often cobbled together. Because of the difficulties of book distribution, a number of independent Egyptian publishers had become both booksellers and distributors. When Diwan opened its flagship shop in 2002, Egyptians could get books at the Cairo International Book Fair at the beginning of each year. Outside of that, there were government-run outlets selling their books, bookshops that belonged to publishers, sidewalk and kiosk booksellers, and also a range of small independents that sold stationery and a few titles of varying quality.

Wassef said that she knew how important establishing a brand would be, and indeed the Diwan font is instantly recognizable to anyone familiar with the Egyptian book scene. She said that after spending on the location, staff, and book stock: “Whatever money we had left, I blew it on the marketing. We decided to consciously create a brand.” In the beginning, Wassef said, “We borrowed from publishers who were very kind to fill our shelves.”

In 2002, she noted, other things on the literary scene were also changing. That was the year Alaa al-Aswany’s Yacoubian Building came out, after a number of years of “bestsellerdom” drought in Egypt. In addition to being sold on street corners, they also sold a lot of copies in Diwan: “We couldn’t keep it on the shelves.”

In the initial years, they learned a lot about what to stock from reader requests.

“When we first opened, I didn’t realize self-help books were a thing, and they sell bucketloads,” Wassef said. “I look down on self-help books, I hate them, but hey, they make me a lot of money, so fine.”

Wassef wasn’t focused only on what has sold. Paolo Coehlo’s The Alchemist is part of the shop’s bread and butter, Wassef said, but she noted that at one point she “sent a memo to the buying department: You’re not allowed to put a Paolo Coelho on a central display table, unless it’s new.” Publisher Sherif Bakr, head of Al Arabi Publishing and Distributing, added from the that Diwan also created shelf space for new books.P

But ultimately, Wassef’s vision was not only about a literary experience, but also about creating a business: “reader as consumer, writer as producer, book as commodity.”

Among the challenges of the early 2000s, she said, was the fact that very few Arabic books in the early 2000s had an individual ISBN. Since these were used as a form of state control, publishers would often borrow an ISBN off another book. “So when you were doing data entry, you’d find that this ISBN belongs to Betty Crockers’ Cakes, not a collection of modern fiction.”

Publisher Sherif Bakr noted that the situation with ISBNs has changed, because publishers are now not allowed to sell at the Cairo International Book Fair unless they’re registered with the Egyptian Publisher’s Association and, for this, their books must have individual ISBNs. When Bakr left the EPA in June 2018, he said, there were 536 publishers, and now around 1400 have registered.

Another challenge was that the available bookselling software couldn’t handle Arabic. They bought bookselling software from the UK and then transliterated the titles to input them into the system. “How unrewarding that effort was.”

Following this first Diwan in Zamalek, a number of other bookshops opened in Cairo, both other branches of Diwan, and also Shorouk Bookstores, the Alef chain, Kotob Khan, Balsam Bookstores for children, and a number of others.

Even so, a 2009 study by Kotob Arabia tracking availability of 150 Egyptian titles found that 10 percent were widely available through conventional channels, 10 percent could be found only at the author’s house or publisher’s office, and 80 percent were found only within a five-kilometer radius of publisher’s office or author’s house.

Bookshops were, at the time, continuing to open. But then, in the aftermath of the recent series of economic crises, “we closed five stores.”

The problems are now urgent for Egyptian booksellers.

“We have no ecosystem,” Wassef said. “There are no organizations that promote collaboration, no bestseller lists, no agents, no marketers, no independent distributors, no database of Arabic titles. There are very few prizes and awards.” She contrasted the Egyptian scene — with its Sawiris Prize, Cairo Comix Prizes, and a few others — with the UK scene, “where there’s a prize for almost everything.”

Wassef added that she doesn’t believe the bookshop is going away: “I still believe in the third space, the place you go for human interactions. We have to find different streams of revenue that will support us, but I’m still for brick and mortar, and I’d like to live in a world where there’s brick and mortar.”

She went on: “What’s happened in the last few years in Egypt has filtered out a lot of people. Diwan came very close to extinction several times. It’s a bit of a miracle we’re still there. The players left in this better learn to collaborate. The sooner we come to terms with that, the bette. rI hope that economic hardship dictates that, makes us do that.”

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