The Cairo Book Fair happened in the Egyptian capital on 28th January – 12th February. Formerly one of the biggest fairs on the continent, it wasn’t spared by the revolution that spread across North Africa and toppled leaders in 2011. Our correspondent in Cairo Lena Naassana gives us a snapshot of the fair that is slowly getting back to its feet.
Suspended in 2011, and a rather scrappy affair the following year, the Cairo Book Fair has only just begun to get back to the glory of its pre-revolution size and scope.
This year, a total of 850 publishers took part: 518 of them Egyptian, 210 Arab, and 27 from elsewhere in the world. And unlike our politics, the dynamics of the publishing industry in Egypt are changing.
The sudden growth of young, trail-blazing publishing houses has pushed aside the giants Ahram and Shrouk, whose mammoth-sized tents once dominated the Fair. This year, the large expanse of the Nasr City premises was peppered with the small to medium sized tents of independents, flaunting trending Egyptian colloquial poetry collections and bold, modern cover designs.
Because of the many restrictions on the movement of books between Arab countries, the Fair is an ideal opportunity for publishing houses from all across the Middle East and MENA region to showcase their merchandise, catering to the demand of an ever-growing Egyptian readership.
The colossal second-hand tent, Soor Al Asbakeya, is perhaps the most fascinating stop. Lost inside this labyrinth, one finds everything from German Fitness RX magazines to vintage posters from the golden days of Egyptian cinema and fading photographs of AbdelNasser and Sadat.
But politics bubble persistently beneath the surface. The exclusion of Turkey from this year’s Fair is a sure sign of growing political tension between the two countries. Politics may have also coloured the decision to appoint Saudi Arabia as this year’s guest country, and the late Egyptian preacher and reformist imam, Mohamed Abduh, as guest author.
Earlier this year, Egyptian president Abdelfattah El Sisi called for a “religious revolution”, and renewal of religious discourse in Egypt. It is no coincidence that the fair moreover devoted 11 out of 12 talks to different aspects of religious reform, hosting Arab and international thinkers such as Hassan Hanafi, Ali Harb and Adonis.
The latter is a Syrian poet, who emphasised the complete lack of intellectual breathing space in Arab society. “1.5 billion Muslims do not have a single intellectual, poet or contemporary philosopher, there are only clerics and religious men.”
Just one week after the closing of the Cairo Book Fair, Turkish author and Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk opened the city’s first literary festival — a sure sign of the literary excitement in store over the Egyptian cultural horizon.