Al-Ahram Weekly Online   7 - 13 February 2008
Issue No. 883
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

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Mahmoud El-Wardani wraps up the proceedings at the 40th Cairo International Book Fair

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The 40th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), which ends today, maintained the same tradition of chaos and disorderliness that marred earlier rounds. As usual, seminars were held minus audience and half the speakers. Some books disappeared mysteriously from the shelves. The publishers said the books had been confiscated, and yet Nasser El-Ansari, president of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), the organiser of the event, insisted that no confiscations had taken place.

The absence of Arab writers and intellectuals from the event was disheartening, and seminars and poetry readings were mostly dull and poorly organised. The cultural activities programme featured "testimonies", a series of seminars devoted to award-winning writers, in addition to the usual activities of the Cultural Café, which included the obligatory "meet-the-author" seminars and roundtables -- but attendance was invariably low. The seminar on book distribution in the Arab world, for example, was attended by only a handful of experts, despite the importance of the subject.

Farouq El-Magdalawi, from the Arab Publishers' Union, said that despite the great potential for the flourishing of Arab creativity, and hence of publishing, obstacles abound, not least Arab governments' lack of interest in the publishing industry and the inability of publishers to market books ahead of the launch. Hani Tolba, marketing director at the National Centre for Translation, likewise deplored the lack of orderly and affordable means to transport books. But a new generation of publishers is emerging, Tolba added, who seem to have mastered a few tricks of the trade. This, he suggested, is why we see more book launches and signing events being organised. Still, Arab publishers prefer to work alone, Tolba pointed out, adding that the Arab Publishers' Union is not doing enough to promote books regionally and internationally.

In a seminar devoted to the role of independent cultural centres and associations, the director of the Cultural Wheel, Mohamed Abdel-Moneim El-Sawy, said that the state monopolised cultural activities for years but cultural NGOs have managed to break into that field and infuse it with much- needed vitality. Independent associations have succeeded because civil society recognised the need to take action, El-Sawy added.

Critic Mohamed Eid, who moderated the seminar, asked El-Sawy whether non-profit groups should make money. El-Sawy said that generation of income is totally acceptable. For example, ticket sales for a recent poetry reading by Ahmed Fouad Negm raised enough money to cover some of the Cultural Wheel's operational costs. There is nothing wrong about performers getting paid, he added.

Basma El-Husseini, president of the Cultural Resource Foundation, said that cultural activities must be totally independent of political power, whether elected or non-elected. Culture, by its very nature, is above any ideology or political party.

Ahmed El-Maghrabi, director of Makan, a foundation that specialises in promoting folk art, said the Ministry of Culture does not cooperate with independent cultural foundations and that the state imposes on them the same taxes nightclubs have to pay. Yasser Gerab of the Townhouse Gallery disagreed, saying that there is room for cooperation between official and independent cultural foundations. The Townhouse is currently cooperating with Al-Hanager Theatre and the National Theatre Centre, Gerab added.

GEBO organised five seminars in homage to the late literary critic Soheir El-Qalamawi, the woman who launched the first book fair when she was head of GEBO. Unfortunately, the seminars drew a small audience and some of the speakers failed to show up.

At one of the seminars, devoted to testimonies by El-Qalamawi's erstwhile students, Gaber Asfour spoke about El-Qalamawi's legacy, addressing in particular her role in encouraging debate and dissent. El-Qalamawi's son, Omar El-Khashab, spoke of how she encouraged her children to read and develop critical minds. During another seminar about her focussing on her pioneering role in promoting folk art studies, Mohamed Sayed Abdel-Tawwab praised her seminal role in drawing attention to orality and popular literature, in particular through her doctoral dissertation on The Arabian Nights which, he added in an affectionate aside, earned her the name Scheherazade among her students.

A seminar dedicated to El-Qalamawi's role in promoting translation was attended by only two experts, Mohamed Enani and Maher Shafiq, who pointed out that she spearheaded cross-cultural studies through translation. Enani also suggested that El-Qalamawi followed in the footsteps of her professor Taha Hussein in that her interest in cross-cultural and comparative work was not confined to European material but also embraced Orientalist studies. Shafiq spoke at length of her contributions to the field of literary translation, in particular her translation of Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew.

A writer herself, El-Qalamawi encouraged a whole generation of writers in the 1960s to publish their work through the government publishing house. In a seminar dedicated to El-Qalamawi's literary writings and moderated by Fouad Qandil, several novelists reviewed her books. Amina Zeidan discussed her Thumma Gharabat Al-Shams (Then the Sun Set); Nawal Mustafa talked about El-Qalamawi's contribution to various fields of culture; and Hussein Hammouda offered a critique of her Ahadith Giddati (Granny's Tales).

Several events had been promised for the centennials of Cairo University and Egyptian cinema. Still, the latter failed to materialise, and the former fell short of expectations. It is a mystery why GEBO failed to rope in prominent academics from Cairo University, who would have been all too willing to discuss the proud legacy of their institution. In the seminar on Cairo University's relationship with society, Elham Abdel-Hamid, deputy director of the Pedagogical Research Institute, said that a university must be a mission first and an operation second. In Cairo University's case, the sense of mission has been eclipsed with time.

Kamal Moghith, a university lecturer, said that universities have devolved into glamorised high schools, adding that the problem of education in Egypt goes back to Mohamed Ali who wanted the educational system to turn out technicians and bureaucrats. Moghith also spoke of the crises of freedom of speech that came later on, when Taha Hussein wrote about Abu Ala and Mansur Fahmi discussed women in the early Islamic periods. But 1952, in his estimation, was the culmination of that process, with the government conceiving of academics as handmaidens to the regime. Nor was Moghith optimistic about the new wave of private universities that has hit the country of late: a new Naksa (setback) is how he described it.

photos: Sherif Sonbol

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