Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
9 - 15 September 1999
Issue No. 446
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

A stake in history

By Gihan Shahine

Among the hustle and bustle of Al-Azhar Street the shabby facade of Mohamed Ali Sobeih's bookshop stands as yet another reminder of the slaughter of history. Last week an auction was organised for the lease of the bookshop and its rare collection of books, manuscripts and old printing equipment. Although other auctions had been organised in the past, the bookshop was never rented out, and the contents remained unsold having failed to attract satisfactory bids.

Last week's bidding started at LE2.5 million and went up to LE4.5 million. But the owners had set a reserve price of LE5 million and once again Sobeih's bookstore was saved. But sources at the International Islamic Bank, where the auction was held, affirm that future auctions are being planned.

The bookshop, which also includes a printing press, was built in 1900 and is renowned for its collection of Arabic and Islamic books. Viewing the piles of garbage around the area it is difficult to imagine that behind the bookshop's grimy doors lies an invaluable collection of 5,000 masterpieces of Arab and Islamic culture. The collection is said to include a rare manuscript of the Arabian Nights, interpretations of the Qur'an and Hadith and rare religious books. There are also manuscripts of Abbassid poetry by El-Sherif El-Raddi and Basha'ar Ibn Bord. The bookshop was considered a centre of enlightenment where famous sheikhs of Al-Azhar, such as religious reformer Mohamed Abdou, used to print their books.

Sobeih bookshop
< Sobeih bookshop

The century - old Mohamed Ali Sobeih bookshop, home to 5,000 masterpieces of Arab and Islamic culture, is being rented out to the highest bidder
photos: Khaled El-Fiqi

The very location of the bookstore lends it historical significance. It provides the only access to Wikalat Abul-Dahab, an Ottoman-period commercial storehouse and inn built by Mohamed Bey Abul-Dahab in 1772. The Wikala is also home to a sabil (fountain), drinking trough, and a tikiyya (hospice). Above the bookshop is the 200-year-old Khan Al-Zarakesha, with its beautiful facade and intricate mashrabiya, while adjacent to the Wikala stands a mosque, built by Emir Abul-Dahab in 1774 in the Ottoman style.

Auctioning off Sobeih's bookstore has caused many to worry, not least that the new tenant may turn it into a workshop or use it for some other commercial purpose. After all, very few people would be willing to pay LE5 million, in addition to a monthly rent of LE250, merely to sell books. Many intellectuals also fear that the country could lose the cultural and religious legacy inside the bookshop, which may end up in the hands of a foreign bidder or on the international market.

Should not the Ministry of Culture, through the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), then, interfere to stop the sale, or at least send a representative to examine the books and manuscripts and make sure that they are not antiquities that are protected by law?

Unfortunately the Abul-Dahab Mosque and its surroundings are registered -- the mosque is even scheduled for restoration -- the area, along with 90 per cent of all Islamic monuments, falls under the mandate of the Ministry of Al-Awqaf (religious endowments). In other words, the SCA has no authority over the place, apart from the restoration work.

Can the SCA, then, participate in the auction as a bidder?

"We simply cannot afford to pay LE5 million," says Gaballa Ali Gaballa, the SCA secretary-general. "The area is full of Islamic monuments and we cannot afford to buy every single antiquity in the vicinity. Restoration of the antiquities we own is our priority at the moment."

Many experts, as well as SCA officials, blame the Ministry of Al-Awqaf, which is entitled to one half of the proceeds, for tacitly supporting the sale. Indeed, the ministry has been blamed for the deterioration of many Islamic monuments. Official statistics show that out of 1,200 Islamic antiquities registered in 1882, only 498 have survived.

"We've always had problems with the ministry, because they rent out antiquities to workshops, endangering their safety, while we try to evacuate such places and restore them," complained SCA senior official Wafa'a Saeed. "This division of responsibilities has caused a mess. Why doesn't the ministry nullify the lease contract of Sobeih's bookshop, instead of renting it out to a new tenant?"

"We can do nothing but bow to the wishes of the owners," argues Mustafa Abdel-Fattah, head of the Al-Awqaf Authority, an affiliate of the Ministry of Al-Awqaf.

Abdel-Fattah explained that the auction was organised in response to a court order. The owners had won a lawsuit entitling them to sell the contents of the bookstore and rent out the place to the buyer. "But again, why is the press making such a fuss about the matter?" Abdel-Fattah said. "We are not selling the place. We're only renting it out and it's certainly the owners' right to sell the contents. All we can do is make sure the new tenant does not endanger the place by any means. Otherwise he will be evicted immediately. The SCA is already evicting those who are using antiquities as workshops at the orders of the prime minister. So, there is nothing to worry about."

Asked about the bookshop's contents, Abdel-Fattah claimed he was powerless.

"We can do nothing to save these books because we are not entitled to take part in the auction. Why not ask the General Egyptian Book Organisation [GEBO]?"

The owners already have, according to their lawyer Adel Ezzat. Ezzat established contact with all those who might have an interest in that cultural legacy, including Al-Azhar, GEBO, and even the Ministry of Culture, but no one responded, again for lack of funds.

"Funds should not be an obstacle, knowing that larger amounts of money are spent on festivals with no cultural value," complains Islamic scholar Mohamed Emara. "The Ministry of Culture and GEBO officials should rush to examine these books, select the most valuable ones, and hand them over to GEBO before we lose them forever. It's enough to know that other historical bookshops were similarly sold and their contents ended up outside the country. This is a waste; this is the erasing of a chapter of history."

Saeed concurs. "Since the government does not have the necessary funds, I believe an NGO should volunteer to raise the required money," she suggests. "A wide-scale press campaign should be launched to encourage donations nationwide."

Fahmi Abdel-Alim, head of Arts and Islamic Antiquities, an NGO working in the field of architectural preservation, is willing to take the initiative. "This is such a great idea," he says enthusiastically. "I'm ready to take the responsibility of raising funds to buy the books and revive the bookshop. Our NGO will be the first to make a symbolic contribution and we call upon banks, businessmen and other NGOs to take part. After all, it's our history that's at stake."

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