By Sami Moubayed
The Association of American Publishers' International Freedom to Publish Committee (IFTP) named Mohamed Hashem, owner and managing director of Merit Publishing House, to receive this year's Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award.
The Cairo-based publishing house which was established in 1998 by Hashem, the late writer Ibrahim Mansour and others, rapidly distinguished itself as a forum for young writers and experimental literature. Many of the most successful novels to have appeared in recent years -- such as Alaa El-Aswani's Imarat Yacoubian ( The Yacoubian Building ) and Ahmed El-Aidi's An Takun Abbas El-Abd (To Be Abbas El-Abd) -- were first published by Merit, and several of its publications have received awards, including four of the Sawiris Prizes. In addition to fiction, Merit publishes poetry, plays, literary criticism, and studies in history, politics and sociology. Books issued by the publishing house are also distinguished by the original design by Ahmed El-Labbad.
Prior to founding Merit, Hashem (b 1958) worked as a journalist and later gained valuable experience in publishing during a spell working at Al-Mahrousa Publishing House. A novelist himself, Hashem is an activist in Kifaya (The Egyptian Movement for Change) and a founding member of Writers and Artists for Change, the weekly meetings of which latter group are held at the offices of Merit. "If we have any bias [in Merit], then it is a bias for new writing and writing that resists censorship," Hashem told Al-Ahram Weekly.
In a press release about the award, Hal Fessenden, chairman of the IFPT Committee, stated that, "the International Freedom to Publish Committee is delighted to recognise Mohamed Hashem of Dar Merit for his unwavering commitment to freedom of expression in an environment where such a commitment is hazardous. Mohamed has published books of importance in a repressive economic and political climate. He has consistently resisted government efforts to censor his activities, and as importantly has resisted the pressure to self-censor. We applaud his bravery and determination."
For his part, Hashem sought to share the credit for the publishing house's success with several writers and intellectuals who supported it. "This award," he commented, "really belongs to Ahmed El-Labbad and to the young generation of writers. And if I were to dedicate it to anyone, I would dedicate it to the victims of the Beni Sweif fire, and to all the communists who died without achieving anything."
photo: Sherif Sonbol