A bookish affair?
Youssef Rakha expects nothing special
The 36th Cairo International Book Fair (21-30 January) seems to be yet another incarnation of its predecessors, with a typically general main seminar topic -- "Stopping at the past to ascertain the future" -- and several uncomplicated loci of interest, "towards a community of knowledge" being the most recurrent among these. Following the announcement of the annual 25 best book awards, in the course of a characteristically high-profile opening ceremony yesterday, the yearly crowds -- few readers among them -- began filing through the heavy-security gates of the fair grounds in Madinet Nasr.
photo: Mohamed Wassim
And true to his word -- a word he tends to pronounce prior to every round of Egypt's largest and most popular cultural event -- General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) chairman Samir Sarhan has made sufficient provisions for a rich and varied entertainment diet. Notwithstanding the piles of books on offer, the fair provides, aside from the regular overhaul of seminars and discussions, a range of activities from musical and theatrical performances to film screenings -- and Ezbekiya-wall shopping, an activity that involves not only second-hand books, tapes and CDs, but stationary, clothes, cheap electronics and even accessories.
At the more formal end of the scale, the lush halls accommodate no less than 30 "seriously oriented" seminars -- most of which are unlikely to live up to their professed aim of engaging the participants, often scholarly figures of high standing, in constructive dialogue. Topics range from Egypt's regional role and Arab relations to democratic reform. Yet considering the restrictions on a genuine confrontation with the problems at hand, such pontification or at best theorising is unlikely to go beyond the repetitive statements of "the facts" of each issue, with little or no contribution to an effective practical approach to resolving them.
Among the more interesting events held at the same high-profile venues are the poetry readings -- occasions that provide the rare chance for an encounter with established Arab poets. Mahmoud Darwish, otherwise known as the poet laureate of the Palestinian resistance, has become a regular feature of this department. This year the seasoned lyricist and orator is expected to read selections from his last collection of poems, La Ta'tadhir Amma Fa'alt (Don't Apologise for what you have Done), which appeared recently in Beirut. Besides Darwish, poetry lovers can look forward to recitations by the celebrated Bahraini poet Qasem Haddad as well as evenings devoted to the late poets Fadwa Touqan and Tawfik Ziyad -- important contributors to the modern canon.
Among the book-centred discussions, of which the Katib wa Kitab (Writer and Book) series of seminars offers many examples, it is arguably in the less formal tent cluster at the opposite end of the fair grounds -- the Culture Café (Al-Maqha Al-Thaqafi) and the Creativity Tent (Mukhayam Al-Ibda'), to mention the two best known examples -- that the fair goer will encounter the most interesting material, including the latest work of Hassan Abdel- Mawgoud and Safaa Abdel-Moneim, among many others. Notwithstanding the topical frameworks -- image culture and cultural magazines in Egypt, for example -- these venues will introduce the audience to a whole range of exciting new writing.
Though subject to turning into laughable comedies of manners, encounters between the younger, often progressive writers and critics who preside over the tent seminars and the average fair goer -- who tends to be completely unfamiliar with contemporary literature written after 1950 -- remain a welcome feature of the fair. It is here, and perhaps to an even greater extent at the café located alongside the tent cluster, that what vitality exists in literary life comes to the fore, with the usual suspects distributing copies of their latest books or discussing each other's work.
Culture Café seminars are often more specifically targetted and, though generally attended only by those directly involved in producing or commenting on the material at hand -- some of which, like Saad Shehata's book Al-Ilaqat Al-Nahwiya fi Sh'ir Mohamed Afifi Mattar (Syntactical Relations in the Poetry of Mohamed Afifi Mattar), are purely technical -- they constitute one of the very few occasions throughout the year on which "the man on the street" has direct, unmediated access to the kind of discourse that currently prevails in cultural circles.
For seminar details see Listings