Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 August 2005
Issue No. 754
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Improving access

Nevine El-Aref finally has a chance to meet the new chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization three months after his appointment

Back from Paris, where he headed the Arab World Institute for two terms Nasser El-Ansari seems to fit right into the spacious chairman's office at the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), overlooking the Nile corniche. Hospitality notwithstanding, he answers questions with reserve, if not apprehension. Positioning himself comfortably at the enormous meeting table adjacent to his bureau, his hands toy constantly with a scrap of paper, the only gesture that betrays his otherwise calm demeanour. Described as a man with an iron fist a quality thought to be appropriate for the task of managing an organisation in dire need of administrative rigour Ansari concedes that "discipline is the basis of everything". A former presidential secretary with a PhD in law from Aix-en- Provence and a diploma in business administration from George Washington University to his name, his career seems to have depended on it: "Even the universe requires discipline." Yet he is no newcomer to the Egyptian cultural establishment: he has been the Cairo Opera House director and the head of Dar Al-Kotob.

During his first three months as GEBO chairman Ansari refused to speak to the press, preferring to "study the situation" and come up with a plan to "revolutionise the role of GEBO as the top publisher in the Arab World" in silence. Even now he will not discuss plans for the Cairo International Book Fair, coming up in January, though his allusions to "the best organisation and participation to date" seem to confirm the rumour that GEBO will this year rely on a specialised private company to this end. Ansari is far more expansive about the institution's publishing activities. In the last 34 years, he says, GEBO produced some 10,000 titles. At present he is engaged in making use of the mounds of books that have been discovered "buried in GEBO warehouses". He wants to upgrade the covers of six million volumes published in the framework of the 16-year-old Family Library initiative and relaunch them under the title "Family Library before 2005". He also wants to enhance cooperation with the Writers Union and other literary bodies "When I was notified of the culture minister's decision to appoint me in place of Samir Sarhan, the first thought that came to my mind was to strengthen GEBO's connections with international publishers, the better to develop an effective modus operandi." He also wrote to Egyptian writers and public figures soliciting their input in drafting a plan of action. A new strategy will be adopted in selecting books for publication, he adds: all will depend on the verdict of an independent, high-profile jury of expert readers.

Of the many new projects to be instituted this year, the Centenary Series, already underway, is perhaps the most valuable addition to the Family Library initiative. Published to coincide with the centenaries of their subjects, these books will commemorate major figures Muhammad Ali Pasha, Mohamed Abdu, Jean-Paul Sartre, Salvador Dali as well as places like Heliopolis. Other series will proceed along similar lines within the same time frame, but for every publication, Ansari now has a feasibility study conducted; according to the combined results of these studies, some books are published together, others separately; some series will be appear on a quarterly rather than bimonthly basis. But Ansari has no intention of discontinuing any book series. In the meantime GEBO has also asked writer Wahid Abdel Meguid to produce a monthly magazine to compete with the Kuwaiti Al-Arabi (also subsidised); it is scheduled to appear in October. Ansari will also publish a catalogue of GEBO publications, which will include synopses to facilitate research. More importantly, GEBO will contribute to promoting Egypt's image by collaborating with publishers overseas on translations of Arabic books to other languages and foreign books to Arabic. Deals have been concluded with Spanish and French publishers, he announced, while negotiations are underway with British and German publishers as well. To help overcome "the perennial problem" of distribution, a contract has been signed with Al-Ahram, who will to distribute not only Reading For All books but other GEBO publications throughout Egypt; similar provisions will be made for the Arab world too.

But perhaps the most difficult task ahead of Ansari is to improve the efficiency of GEBO staff, and to this end he will institute ongoing workshops for cartoonists, calligraphers, copy editors, cover and book designers, computer specialists, typesetters, printers and others. "My job also provides for implementing a programme to improve reading habits among Egyptians," he says, "and not only through improving financial access to books, but equally through coordinating the entire process by which GEBO books are produced."

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