Book fair set on a revolutionary course
The odds were stacked against the 43rd Cairo International Book Fair, writes Nevine El-Aref
Despite the statements by Minister of Culture Shaker Abdel-Hamid indicating that the 43rd Cairo International Book Fair was "a distinguished success, especially in light of the current circumstances in Egypt", as well as that he considered it "a great challenge to him personally, and to all the people who worked on setting it up," some people believe that several things have served to dampen its success this year.
The fair had a two-day pause from 25 to 26 January to give members of the public the opportunity to celebrate the first anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, but when it reopened its doors on Friday 27 January all its cultural activities were cancelled. The revolutionary spirit was still in the air, and the day entitled "The Friday of Pride and Dignity" saw demonstrators gathering in several squares all over Cairo and marching towards Tahrir Square.
Outside anyone's control was the heavy rain that hit Cairo and spoilt packages of books that were left on shelves. This year, with a low budget and only a short time available, the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) erected tents for every publisher at the fair to display its books, replacing the permanent buildings that were demolished when rehabilitation started on the Nasr City Fairground (NCF) in 2010, but all work stopped because of the 2011 revolution. A committee from the GEBO and the Egyptian Publishers Union is now at work inspecting all the damage in order to assess the losses and compensate those affected by the rain.
Dar Waad publisher Al-Gumeili Ahmed, who organised the first Arab Book Fair, says that this year the fair has been disappointing and he is not expecting any gain or benefit from sales of books. As he says, "Selling books at the fair this year will not even cover the expenses we paid to set up our pavilion."
GEBO head Ahmed Megahed told Al-Ahram Weekly that all losses would be compensated. He added that the book fair activities were going ahead according to the earlier schedule, and that the number of those attending was as great as it had always been.
Mohamed Salmawi, head of the Egyptian Writers' Union, said he was happy and satisfied that the fair was on time, since it would be a great loss to all writers and would have had a negative effect on the union had it been cancelled or delayed this year. For his part Mohamed Abdel-Latif, head of the Arab Publishers' Union, said the book fair played a very remarkable and inspiring role in strengthening the friendly relations among Arabs and foreign nations. And the head of the Egyptian Publishers' Union, Mohamed Rashad, said the revolution had helped push the way forward to freedom of creativity and thought, which in turn would lead to a lessening of book censorship.
Rashad also described the role of the GEBO in establishing the book fair as "remarkable", and said it would help lead to new policies and agreements in the book industry and commerce.
Walking through the various pavilions of the book fair, Amr Abdel-Moneim, a professor at Cairo University who brought his three grandsons to the fair, told the Weekly that his grandsons were very keen to go to the fair this year as they were expecting to find books and reviews that would enable them to understand more about the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring. "The title of this year's fair is 'A Year Since the Egyptian Revolution', which they find really attractive," Abdel-Moneim said. "We came yesterday and all they wanted were books on the revolution. They want to know what happened and what people were doing," he said.
"We came to the fair again today to look for more books to read about the revolution."
The Weekly asked Ali Radwan, an English language school teacher, about the choice of Tunisia as this year's guest of honour. "It's a perfect choice," he said. It was the country that began the Arab Spring a few weeks before Egypt's own uprising started, ousting its president and setting into motion the wave of in popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria. "Some successful, others still in limbo, but the fear that had been part of the Arab psyche towards their leaders has dissipated," he said.
"This is what makes this year's book fair so important. It is really a revolutionary tale," said Salem Boghdadi, one of the publishers in the second hand book section, the Souk Al-Azbakeya.
"I think what we are really seeing right now is the sense of freedom and the need to tell our story to people," added Hemdan Abdel-Aziz, who owns a kiosk in the Souk Al-Azbakeya. He told the Weekly that the majority of the titles he had sold were books on the revolution. "We are selling a massive number of books this year, even though the revolutionary ones are the most popular," he added.
What also proved a great success was the two exhibitions, one of art and the other of photography, which showed the revolution, as well as a children's pavilion and a dedicated space for films and plays. At the end of the fair, Megahed said, awards would be given for the best books published in 2011. The LE10,000 prizes for long and short novels, colloquial and classical poetry, science, politics, economics, anthropology and sociology texts and children's books will be presented by Abdel-Hamid.