To place before the public
Mohamed Hashim , 46-years old, was born and raised in Tanta. In 1986 he moved to Cairo and two years later founded Miret, an independent publication agency which has played a growing role on Egypt's literary scene. Miret focusses mainly on fiction and poetry. They currently produce over 300 titles.
At the beginning, we at Miret mainly dealt with political and intellectual texts; a few months later we anxiously started focussing on literature. Our aim was, and still is, to form a publication house that will dig into political issues that are of concern to our culture, our intellectual life and our literature. I had had many discussions with many colleagues including Nabil Abdel-Fattah and Ibrahim Mansour years before I established the agency. We argued that there are many taboos writers faced regardless of whether they write on politics or literature or anything else. If the writer himself doesn't have freedom of speech then there will be no advancing creativity within our culture.
We set restrictions on which we have acted since that first day. An agreement was made not to publish or deal with pro-Israeli writers. We also refuse to work with writers producing material that promotes corruption. There is no way our present -- under constant threat from the machinations of the US and Israel -- can remain so silent. There are issues that have become a part of our lives, and the public has to deal with them one way or another.
My target isn't to make profit. If it was simply to make money I would have been easy on myself and would have dealt mostly with religious and political texts, like everybody else in the field. It disappoints me to see so much money invested in these books -- their hard covers are worth up to 10 pounds each. Realistically speaking, who can afford such expensive and yet necessary books? Who is flooding our book market with unaffordable hard-backs? Who is distorting the minds of the public, leading them to believe that if they simply read these religious books, they will go to heaven?
The public are starting to develop a black-and-white mentality, and this, sadly, is an accurate reflection of the cultural environment that surrounds them. For years neither the government, nor anybody else, has done anything to tackle the crisis. I'm not saying that we [Miret] are doing as much as we could, or that we have the ability to turn back the tide. But we can at least make a dent every now and then and with time become stronger, make more of a difference for the better.
The complete development of a book, from the mind of the writer to the hands of a reader, is the arena in which we operate. First of all, to have a book published by Miret the text has to be well written and properly structured. Afterwards it is revised by a group of fellow editors and intellectuals, who then offer feedback that might benefit both the writer and the text. Our intention is always that the end result will have a role to play in preserving and defending our culture. When the text is finally ready for the public the production phase begins.
I must remind you that this is an independent publication agency. It is neither private nor governmental, nor is it an NGO. If the writer is able to buy enough copies, which reduces the risk of loss, or contribute about 15 to 20 per cent of the production costs, then they've got themselves a deal. The amount could be paid either before or after the books enter the market.
Once we've agreed on a text our only goal is then to place that text before the public. The distribution process is a very important phase that is often overlooked, or else paid insufficient attention. We spare no effort in ensuring that our books are distributed to bookshops from Aswan to Marsa Matrouh. There are only about 50 bookshops that deal with us legitimately though there are many others that have sold our books and have not paid us any money yet. Since our targeted market is the general public we've found that street-corner bookstands are one of our better ways of distributing. There is a distribution crisis across the country and it is causing far more harm than people realise. Yet at the same time I remain optimistic about the situation improving. Already I've noticed that more people are reading our Arabic novels.
The book fair is the largest cultural event in the Cairo calendar. However, changes in scheduling this year caught us off-guard. The duration of the event was narrowed down from the usual 15 to just seven days. It is frustrating at times when you can't have a conversation in the book fair because of all the music blasting from the tape shops surrounding you. This is an event that has been around for 36 years and I'm afraid that it will soon turn into a flea market. I hope it neither loses its character nor its purpose. If the fair was more focussed and organised, then seven days would be more than enough for the fair would serve its purpose.
Whenever a problem arises culture is always the first to be jettisoned as far as the decision-makers are concerned. I rarely see any governmental actions undertaken for the sake of culture. Even in newspapers the culture section is always the first to host an ad. If it is not important to newspapers anymore, how can we expect culture to matter to the public?
So far we have been able to produce 100 titles a year, usually whittled down from 300 or so book proposals. Many of the 300 are refused because of inadequately structured language. The main weakness of many young writers lies in their attention to detail and, as a consequence, their tendency to disregard the wider culture that surrounds them.
Creativity and the ability to listen are directly proportional. Once a week our office hosts lectures given by novelists describing the conflicts and experiences that have taken place during the writing process. More and more young writers are starting to attend these lectures and I can already see improvement in their work. It seems that most of them are attracted to marginal issues, which is interesting because that is the focus of the novel I am currently working on.