This side of Palermo
Ushering in the latest, pumped-up round of the Cairo Book Fair, open to the public today, Youssef Rakha
ponders the surrounding circumstances
The Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF: 23 January-4 February), inaugurated by President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday, is open to the public today. Expectations notwithstanding, it is to be hoped that there will be more to this, the 39th round, than Italy's guest-of-honour intervention -- the one side of what remains the largest literary event in the Arab world that has been adequately publicised.
Just like Italian Ambassador Antonio Badini, a bustling socialite who has capitalised on the opportunity to put forth notions of "Mediterranean exchange", local and Arab publishers have been on alert for months, putting together not seminar and event programmes but new selections of "important" and marketable books. The tradition of hoarding new titles until they appear just before the opening has been carried to extremes, with a new novel by the Yaqoubian Building man, Alaa El-Aswani, Chicago (Cairo: Dar Al-Shurouq) and the latest by Sonalla Ibrahim, Al-Talasus (Voyeurism, Cairo: Dar Al-Mustaqbal Al-Arabi) both appearing in the last few weeks -- to mention but two high-profile examples.
Since the Arab world's guest-of-honour presentation at the renowned Frankfurt Book Fair in 2004, much talk in both private- and public- sector publishing circles has ensued, giving the fair's organisers, the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) much food for thought.
The very notion of a guest of honour, in fact, was only adopted after participation in Frankfurt; and the first time it was applied, last year, Germany was chosen to do the honours. Had the Egyptian intelligentsia been free of 'o'det al-khawaga (the white-man complex), perhaps GEBO would have returned the favour to Germany by bundling all of Europe, or at least German-speaking Europe, together -- and letting them deal with the consequent confusion. Instead, and rather than seeking partnership with countries in a similar predicament to our own -- the former non-aligned states, the post- Soviet republics, Latin America -- we seem to be hosting the former imperial powers one by one.
But the German -- now Italian connection is not the only factor contributing to change: 2006 was also the year that GEBO's long- standing chairman, Samir Sarhan, died at the age of 65, having resigned for health reasons, to be replaced by the somewhat sterner and undoubtedly more "reform"-minded Nasser El-Ansari, former director of the Paris-based Arab World Institute. On the occasion of the 38th fair, El-Ansari told the Weekly that "the aim of the year's round was not only to reform the CIBF but to revolutionise the fair in a way that will allow it to stand in comparison with its counterparts in France and Germany." This year the European concept of what a book fair is or should be must be finding the most emphatic expression to date.
Notwithstanding maps, facilities, information and transportation both to and within the Fair Grounds, among the signs of change are: a tighter schedule of non-book selling events spread across a wide range of venues besides the Salah Salem Fair Grounds; two days of copyright deals, publishing, printing and intellectual property conferencing; and the presence, among other figures, of the 2006 Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk.
Still, scouring through the information available on this, "the most advanced book fair to date" -- faxes, wires, newspaper articles and Internet briefs -- there is precious little that El-Ansari provides in the way of a gloss on the newness of this round besides statistics -- it is larger -- that time-honoured speciality of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture, which has often been accused, and not so unfairly, of favouring quantity over quality.
Otherwise El-Ansari reiterates the importance of the guest-of-honour intervention and all that the Italians are doing in the way of a rich and varied programme. Yet here as elsewhere in the annals of khawaga relations, Badini and the embassy are in a better position to describe that programme by default. There are seminars on: translation and the much-touted alleged Other; "the Cultural Revolution in Alexandria", Islamic presence in Italian history and Italian presence in Egyptian urban architecture; the media and society, knowledge and perception, the New Testament and the Qur'an... There is a full programme of films, concerts, plays and talks...
On a different note, the fair will have received a major logistical facelift -- not even the most militantly post-colonial among us will resent cleaner passageways, better organised exhibits or a wider variety of books on offer. Nor will they have much against engaging with Italian art and culture. Indeed, as is the case every year, the intelligentsia will make up the vast majority of event-goers, and however much some of them might be against current configurations of North-South relations, others will no doubt be eager to engage with notions of dialogue, shared heritage and cultural bridges of tolerance and understanding.
As Badini has attempted to sell it, and most of us would buy if not for political realities, "Human vicissitudes concern everyone, human stories are all similar. The presumed 'clash of civilisations' is a foolishness, originating from prejudices and lack of knowledge, and therefore of culture in a broader aspect." Books, by contrast, make up "a privileged instrument of consciousness of others..."