Balsam Saad and Sherif Bakr on panel at the Casablanca International Book Fair 2018. Photo/ M. Lynx Qualey

A snapshot of the Casablanca International Book Fair 2018

The Casablanca International Book Fair 2018 was hosted in the Moroccan capital from February 8-18. Our good friend M. Lynx Qualey who runs Arablit.org was at the festival and gave us this exclusive snapshot. While you are here, if you have translations in Arabic then I suggest that you enter the ArabLit Story Prize which is a brainchild of Arablit.org. You can also support their work by contributing to their Patreon Account.

The Casablanca International Book Fair recently closed out its 24th annual program. Also known as the Salon International de l’Edition et du Livre (SIEL), it’s the second fair of the year in the Arab literary calendar, where book fairs have been—for the last several decades—an important way of distributing books across the region. The SIEL follows the massive Cairo International Book Fair, and comes before the more modest fair in Muscat, Oman.

Casablanca is neither as giant as the Cairo or Riyadh fairs, nor as central to the book business as Abu Dhabi or Sharjah. Yet it’s a delightfully organic and vibrant-feeling fair, thronged by weekend visitors, its talks packed with visitors. As fair-goers from around Morocco arrived at the train station over the weekend, taxi drivers surged up, asking if people were there for the “ma’ared, ma’ared”?

One of the stands at Casablanca Book Fair 2018. Photo/ M. Lynx Qualey

The indoor fairgrounds—a short walk from the train station—is well-maintained and easy to visit in a single afternoon. Although not all the new books available at the Cairo Fair made the journey, there were a wealth of books from the fair’s more than 700 exhibitors. The bulk were from Morocco, published in Arabic and French, but more than 40 other countries took part in the fair.

Also this year, the Attijariwafa Bank Foundation announced a new “Book of the Year Award,” to be given for the first time next year to two authors of books published in both Arabic and French. Each winner will reportedly receive 30,000 dirhams (around $3,300USD) and a trophy.

The biggest speaker draws were visiting Moroccan-French authors Tahar Ben Jelloun and Leila Slimani, but there was also a clear effort at boosting activities for young readers this year, which launched some complaints from publishers, as the limited space meant a crush of small bodies.

Balsam Saad and Amina Hachimi Alaoui. Photo/ M. Lynx Qualey
Balsam Saad and Amina Hachimi Alaoui. Photo/ M. Lynx Qualey

The cost of books for young people is always an issue. Amina Hachimi Alaoui, the award-winning author and publisher of Edition Yanbow al-Kitab, is a major force in Moroccan children’s publishing. This year, Alaoui tried something different at her stand. She said that, in the past, she has printed her award-winning books in runs of 2,000 and sold them for around 60 dirhams, or $6.50 USD. But last spring, she decided to print five different books in batches of 20,000—or 100,000 total books—and to have a 10-dirham (or around $1USD). By the second to last day of the fair, she had already, she said, sold out 60% of her 100,000 books.

Egypt was this year’s SIEL guest of honor, and the visiting Egyptians were charmed by the fair. Balsam Saad (Dar Balsam Publishing) and Sherif Bakr (Al Arabi Publishing) gave an excellent talk about the business of publishing literature in translation. However, the official government stand was disappointing—a largely empty space with giant photos of the pyramids and a felucca on the Nile. One Moroccan publisher commented laughingly that it was the perfect stand for a dictatorship.

There was other controversy attending Egypt’s participation, as reportedly one Egyptian publishing house had a book titled The Summary of the General History of Africa, the cover of which marked Western Sahara as a separate nation. This book was pulled from the fair along with 25 others that “undermined Morocco’s territorial integrity” or “blasphemed.”

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