Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)
Tuesday,17 October, 2017
Issue 1232, (5 - 11 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Religion revisited

The 46th Cairo International Book Fair aims to renew religious discourse in Egypt, writes Nevine El-Aref

Religion revisited
Religion revisited
Al-Ahram Weekly

With the seminal reformist religious scholar Sheikh Mohamed Abdou (1849-1905) as the figure of the year, last week the 46th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF, 28 January-12 February) opened under the slogan “Culture and Renewal”. The ceremony took place in the presence of, among others, Prime Minister Ibrahim Mahlab, Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour and General Egyptian Book Organisation Head Ahmed Megahed. The daily turnout has been high, with long lines at the security gates testifying to the continuing popularity of reading despite claims of decline.

For Megahed the fair is an opportunity to deliver a message of renewal with regard to cultural and political as well as religious discourse, something it endeavours to do through the presence of numerous intellectuals whose views on the last four years should contribute to raising awareness in every domain. That is why the majority of the seminars — with topics like women in Islam, social and political development through Islamic history and the failure of religion-driven politics — focus on reform. Efforts have also been made to ensure that the books on offer reflect these subjects.

Books by the Qatar-based, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated cleric Youssef Al-Qaradawi and the early radical Islamist author Sayed Qutb, who was executed in 1966 after being implicated in an attempt on Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s life, were removed from the pavilion of Dar Al-Shorouk, their publisher. This was done by and on the initiative of Dar Al-Shorouk alone, in response to repeated complaints by the public. According to Magahed, the Egyptian constitution prevents the Ministry of Culture from banning books or works of art without a court ruling authorising the move.

“Banning a book is a free promotional campaign that will attract sympathisers and boost sales,” Megahed said. A more sensible response to complaints about a book would be to hold a seminar and perhaps publish a book to counter it, he explained. “This is GEBO’s approach — and it is the only solution in ‘the age of open skies’.”

After a long wait in line, stepping into the fair grounds reminded me of the time when I was 15 and attending the book fair for the first time. This is not simply a space for marketing books but also a pleasant outing. Walking from one pavilion to another, people stroll along with bags full of books in their hands or rush past to reach one of the seminars in time for a good seat. Others are sitting on benches enjoying the sun, sipping Pepsi and munching on beef shawermas. Little boys play football on the grass, ice cream stalls lure customers with bottles of ice-cold water and there is an unmistakable weekend spirit to the place.

This year, I was not lost as usual in the vast 80,000-sq m fair ground thanks to the Am Amin app, an android guide including detailed maps as well as lists of publishers and book titles. It made finding my way around the fair real fun. “We called the app Am Amin because every bookshop has its own janitor, usually Am Something or other,” app designer Ahmed Al-Sawaf explains, “who is responsible for sorting books and helping readers. This app performs this role for the whole fair.”

Walking through the display halls, I was impressed with the variety and sheer number of Arabic books available. Saudi Arabia, the fair’s guest of honour this year, has the largest pavilion ever, in the main display hall as well as outside it. To mourn King Abdullah, the Saudi pavilion cancelled all  artistic activities, however. Saudi Arabia was chosen, Megahed explained, because it has had the largest number of publishers for several years. But he was equally keen on countries and publishers participating for the first time since the fair was established in 1966, stressing that Egypt is regaining its role as the region’s main cultural hub.

Many have complained of the books’ high prices at the fair, but GEBO has no authority to control or modify prices. “It is up to the publishers,” he said, adding that GEBO’s own books — subsidised by the ministry — are priced very reasonably at LE 8-LE 20, with Family Library Series selling for LE 2 and second-hand books available at Sour Al-Azbakeya at a 75 percent discount on their already old cover price. Other initiatives he mentioned include the Gift of a Book and Book Delivery, the latter in collaboration with Akhbar Al Yom, encouraging reading and exchange. Karam Youssef, the owner and director of the Kotob Khan bookshop, said the fair is better organised and more successful than last year, her first experience of the fair as a participant — and she had been shocked with disorder and lack of cleanliness. These defects have been remedied, she said, praising the Am Amin app as well.

For his part Hassan Diaa of Sefsafa Publishing House said the number of visitors was overwhelming: “I never expected such numbers.”

Ali Mohamed of the Egyptian Lebanese Publishing House said that the book launches the house has held at the fair have had a positive effect on sales. Readers come not only to buy books but to be photographed with the author and have their copy of the book signed.

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