Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 January - 1 February 2012
Issue No. 1082
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Cairo Book Fair breezes in

The Cairo International Book Fair is on as usual this year, but with a few little twists. Nevine El-Aref attended its official opening

Strains of Oriental music filled the cold and windy air of the Nasr City Fair Ground (NCFG) on Sunday to announce the launch of the 43rd Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) -- delayed for a year after the Egyptian revolution erupted few days before the official opening last January.

The scene this year was totally different from how it has been over the last 30 years. To begin with the fair was officially opened by the minister of culture, Shaker Abdel-Hamid, and his Tunisian counterpart Mahdi Mabrouk, along with government officials of both countries.

The opening ceremony went smoothly, but unfortunately it went on rather too long -- it took a full three hours to tour the various CIBF pavilions. And despite the announcement made by Ahmed Megahed, director of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), that a press conference with both the Egyptian and Tunisian ministers would be held at the end of their opening tour, every now and then certain members of the press -- especially TV crews -- would push through the crowds with their equipment and stop Abdel-Hamid and Mabrouk for an exclusive five- to 10-minute interview for their channels. This prevented other journalists from quietly following the tour path and getting a proper look at the pavilions. To make matter worse the questions put by each TV interviewer were almost identical, as were the ministers' answers. They had been better to wait for the scheduled press conference, which of course never took place.

Meanwhile, representatives of every pavilion were in their places waiting for a short visit from the ministers. A screen showing Mubarak's stepping-down speech was being aired at the Ministry of Information pavilion, while the Ministry of Interior was decorated with flags displaying the slogan "Together 25 January" and the Ministry of Defence showed video clips of patriotic songs.

The Arab world across the board --Saudi Arabia, Sharjah, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, Syria, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Sudan, Iraq and Palestine -- all had pavilions, and even Iran was represented by several private publishers. Italy, Spain, Britain, Turkey, Germany, Russia, China, Denmark, Poland, India, Greece and the Unites States also put in a show. The Saudi pavilion was the largest among the Arab nations and encompassed 43 government and private organisations.

During the official tour, the Sharjah representative announced that Egypt would be guest of honour of its upcoming book fair scheduled to be held in December 2012.

A concert of music and song by Tunisian singer Amal Al-Hamrouni and the Oyoun Al-Kalam band was held at the end of the opening tour. Al-Hamrouni's songs were written by colloquial Egyptian poet Ahmed Fouad Negm and were originally sung by singer and composer Sheikh Imam. This famous duo composed and sang political songs, mostly about the oppressed poor and indicting the ruling classes.

Another innovation this year was that the gates were opened to the public immediately after the official opening, in contrast to former years when the first day was dedicated to VIPs. The CIBF, whose theme this year is "A Year Since the Egyptian Revolution", will continue until 7 February with a two-day hiatus between 25 and 26 January to mark the eponymous event. The CIBF is as gargantuan as ever with 17 Arab and 12 foreign countries participating. Of the 745 publishers taking part 498 are Egyptian, 215 from Arab countries and 32 from elsewhere. Seminars and evenings of poetry are being held on the fringe of this year's cultural programme, which features cultural caf├ęs, round table discussions and literary encounters. A new poetry and novel competition has been established, and in addition to the publishers' stands 93 kiosks are allocated to second hand book dealers.

Tunisia is this year's guest of honour. Alongside 35 Tunisian publishers displaying 250 titles is an ambitious and diverse cultural programme to celebrate the country following its own Jasmine Revolution.

Megahed said the decision to choose Tunisia as this year's guest of honour was not taken haphazardly, but on the contrary it was chosen because it was the spark of the Arab Revolution, or Arab Spring, which is centre stage of the CIBF's 43rd round.

Meanwhile, Tunisian Minister of Foreign Affairs Rafiq Abdel-Salam said selecting Tunisia as this year's CIBF guest of honour was entirely justified and appropriate, not only because it sparked the Arab revolutions but also because Egypt and Tunisia had strong ties of friendship.

Abdel-Hamid said he was optimistic about the fair's success and delighted that Tunisia was the guest of honour. He described the CIBF as "a cultural wedding" filled with passion and happiness. "It is the first international cultural event to be held in Egypt since the outbreak of the Egypt Revolution," he said, adding that the event presented an ideal opportunity to show the world that Egypt was a safe place to visit.

Mabrouk described Egypt and Tunisia as having a "twin revolutionary" accord, as both countries were leaders in the Arab Spring uprising against dictatorship. He also thanked Egyptian cultural organisations and institutions for inviting Tunisia, which he considered a great honour.

In response to a question by Al-Ahram Weekly as to whether any books had been banned from the shelves in this year's round, Megahed said that this year he had not prohibited "any book or anyone" from attending or taking part in the fair. "Security restrictions no longer exist," he insisted. "Freedom has not only become wider, but it has become the CIBF's slogan and spirit."

Megahed added that the two-day pause in the fair would not curtail any activities, since this year's festival would last for 15 days rather than the usual 10.

For the first time the fair will also encompass two exhibitions, one of art and the other of photographs portraying the revolution, as well as a children's pavilion and a dedicated space for films and plays. The latter will showcase footage of the revolution, much of it shot on mobile phones.

"Awards for the best books published in 2011 is another innovation in this year's fair," Megahed said. The LE10,000 prizes for long and short novels, colloquial and classic poetry, science, politics, economics, anthropology and sociology texts and children books will be presented by Abdel-Hamid.

For the first time the London-based leading human rights organisation Amnesty International is to have a table at the CIBF so as to deliver its message to the Egyptian people and the region.

"Returning the CIBF to its original home at the NCFG instead of the Cairo International Conference Centre was a real challenge, especially given the time and budgetary constraints," CIBF Director Ahmed Salah said.

In line with the move, the NCFG was subjected to much restructuring and development. In fact, all the buildings were removed and replaced with tents to be used as display halls. However, organisers maintained as much as possible of the publisher's usual space. For example the Al-Ahram hall was replaced by a tent exactly where the building was originally located.

The windy and dusty weather, however, has already taken its toll on the books in the tents. Some shelves were smothered in dust and looked as though they had been there since long in the past. Meanwhile, some tents were still empty as publishers were not able to deliver their books on time. Others were not working to full capacity, with cardboard boxes still being filled with books needing to be arranged on shelves.

On the second day of the fair the situation was not much brighter. Although the usual cultural activities were taking place as scheduled, attendance was low.

"I am really upset," said Ali Mohamed, one of the team in the Azbakiya kiosk. "I thought the fair would be more crowded with people to compensate for last year's cancellation."

His colleague Hossam Asfar had a different point of view, and was not surprised by the low turnout. "Today is the first session of the newly-elected parliament and people are busy demonstrating in front of the People Assembly building or following it up at home on TV," he told the Weekly. Also, he said, people were busy shopping to stock up on supplies in case of trouble on the anniversary of the revolution.

"I hope that every thing goes smoothly on that day and the fair will be able to reopen its doors again to public after the two-day pause," Asfar added.

Ismail Abu Eyad is on the Palestine pavilion. He says this year's fair is more interesting for members of the public since it tells the story of the Arab Spring through books, documentaries and photographs.

The Yemeni bookstore is managed by Abdel-Alim Al-Hazmi and is one of only three Yemeni booths in the fair, but he is very optimistic about covering last year's losses and meeting a new Egyptian crowd eager to learn about the Yemeni experience.

Egyptian Publishers' Union head Mohamed Rashad is also happy that the fair has opened on time. He said another delay would have undermined the credibility of the fair and made it inconsistent with other regular Arab book fairs. Rashad has called on all members to join hands to ensure the success of the CIBF. He has also called on the government to waive the NCFG's usual rental fees, arguing that the GEBO could pass on the savings to publishers, many of whom are struggling because of the general economic downturn, in the form of reduced hire charges for stands.

While the fair celebrates the Arab Spring, the Development Cultural Fund (DCF) has a celebration of its own. DCF head Mohamed Abu Seada said that a book signing ceremony of Adel Wasili's new book A Square's Life 2011 would be held at the Prince Taz Palace. The book tells the Tahrir Square story from the outbreak of the revolution on 25 January through photographs taken there.

Meanwhile, the Beit Al-Sohaimi on Al-Muizz Street will be the location of a seminar on "Creativity and Revolution", followed by a documentary on the revolution, while the House of Poetry at the Sitt Wasila house will hold a seminar on poems of the revolution.

Seada added that in the coming week the Art Creativity Centre in the Cairo Opera House grounds would be screening documentaries on the 25 January Revolution.

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