Lit & Found: An Excerpt from Diwan Books Co-founder Nadia Wassef’s ‘Shelf Life’

Macmillan has made an excerpt of Nadia Wassef’s memoir Shelf Life available online:

Nadia Wassef, co-founder of Egypt’s trendsetting Diwan bookstore chain, has written down the story of how she, her sister, and a friend launched Diwan on 26th of July Street back in 2002 and turned it from an anomaly into a chain.

The book is available next month; you can also read Sherine Elbanhawy’s review in The Markaz Review, in which she quotes Nadia as saying: “Diwan was my love letter to Egypt. It was part of, and fueled, my search for myself, my Cairo, my country. And this book is my love letter to Diwan.”

The excerpt opens:


To the uninitiated pedestrian, Diwan was just one of several shops behind the Baehler mansions’ ornate exterior. The traditional royal-blue street sign read Shari’ 26 Yulyu, 26th of July Street. We’d placed our logo, in formidable black text, on the building’s façade. A supplicant jacaranda bowed over the shop entrance. The glass front door, which faced the street corner, was adorned with modern Arabo-Islamic designs and a long silver handle.

Inside was an oasis from the hot, traffic-choked street. Strains of Arabo-jazz, Umm Kulthum, and George Gershwin were underscored by the mechanical din of air-conditioning units. Beneath a mighty wall with signs for recommendations, bestsellers, and new releases, Arabic and English fiction and nonfiction books cascaded from floating shelves. Visitors could either walk through the doorway on the right to the book section, past the cashier and stationery, or enter the left doorway into the multimedia section, a curated collection of boundary-crossing film and music: experimental and classic, Eastern and Western.

During the research phase of setting up Diwan, I’d read an article stating that most people turn right upon entering a bookstore. Swayed by this observation, we placed the book section of Diwan to the right. There, the windows looked out onto the adjoining courtyard rather than the main road, making it the quieter part of the store. High ceilings lined with tracks of incandescent lighting illuminated mahogany wood shelves with a matte-steel trim—a marriage of old and new. The books were split into two categories. On the left were our Arabic books, which Hind stocked. On the right were the English books: my domain. We placed our modest selection of French and German titles in the multimedia section. A nearby entryway led to the café, the central hearth of the store.

Read the full excerpt online.


  1. Many thanks for drawing my attention to this book! I followed your link to the excerpt and decided to purchase it. Having been in Cairo only once, 10 years before Diwan was founded, the excerpt has the effect of lifting the grey veil from my memories, but also of a longing to go back there and visit that bookstore which must be a phenomenon, an oasis. L

  2. [Sorry, I accidentally dropped my phone and sent the comment before it was finished] … The audacity, independence and insight of the founders would be welcome here (Holland) too, where bookstores are perhaps less dusty, but their profiles are profoundly shaped by a shallow, market-driven, conformity.

    Many thanks, I always read your blog with enormous pleasure. Kind regards, E.

    1. Author

      I think you’ll enjoy it! Nadia has written it with humor and a keen observational eye.

  3. Strangely enough, this book has already been published in Italian! I saw it last week in a bookshop here in Milan, but as I prefer to read books writtten in English in English I then looked it up on Amazon. I’ve preordered it!

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