Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)
Wednesday,19 June, 2019
Issue 1331, (9 - 15 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Literature at the Fair

Literary titles have been selling best at this year’s Cairo International Book Fair

photos: Sherif Sonbol

At the entrance of the tent allocated to the Tanmia Bookstore at this year’s Cairo International Book Fair, a group of five young men and women were standing, making calculations about who was to buy what.

They had a list of some 20 books they said they had agreed they wanted to read but knew they needed to pitch in to be able to buy.

University students from a range of scientific departments, their list was nevertheless dominated by literature – contemporary writers from Egypt essentially, but also from the Arab world and a couple of translated titles from Latin America, a memoir of an Egyptian military officer, two history titles related to Germany in the 1930s and one economics title.

Cairo International Book Fair

The choices were designed, Ayah, a medical school student in her graduating year, said, by a desire “to try to find out how things will go in the future.”

“When you look at what is happening around us, not just in Egypt but also in the US and Europe and all around the Middle East, it is hard to understand what is going on, let alone know what to expect what might be coming next,” she said.

This wish was reflected in the kind of literature that Ayah and her friends were picking up. There were titles reflecting on post-Arab Spring political developments, but they were not only about that. The list also included literary works relating to the fall of the former Ottoman Empire and the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Helping out visitors at Tanmia, Mahmoud, attending his first Book Fair from the selling end, agreed that the best-sellers for the first week had been literary titles with a political edge, “particularly those relating to Egypt.”

Cairo International Book Fair

Journalist and writer Ibrahim Eissa’s most recent novel The Blood Journey (Rihlat Al-Dam) had not been selling as well as his previous book The Televangelist (Mawlana), he said. The latter title, he added, was more related to the relationship between religion and social influence and also between religion and politics than the new novel.

One of this year’s best-sellers was novelist Ezzeddin Shoukri’s latest book All this Nonsense. Mahmoud said that there was a great deal of curiosity among Shoukri’s readers after his previous title The Exit (Bab Al-Khoroug) that described socio-political developments in Egypt after the 25 January Revolution.

“Most people who come to the Book Fair seem to be in their twenties and early thirties, and they seem to be trying to understand politics better,” he said.

Also on the popular list of novels this year is the first novel of writer Ahmed Kheireddin From the Window (Min Al-Shebbak). Like All this Nonsense, From the Window picks a line from Egypt’s current political developments and takes it into literary avenues for the author to try to dissect an intensely layered political scene.

According to Mohamed, who helps visitors at publisher Dar Al-Shorouk, “it would not be surprising if this novel proved to be one of this year’s best-selling titles. It is by a new writer still making his first impression on readers, but the book is gaining increasing attention. This has been noticeable with other new writers in Egypt during the past decade or so,” he said.

Ahmed Bedeir, director of Al-Shorouk and deputy chair of the Egyptian Writers Union, agreed that literature with political overtones was popular and that the market was being particularly kind to new writers who had something to offer in this regard.

Cairo International Book Fair

“I guess we have to thank Alaa Al-Aswani’s Yacoubian Building (Omaret Yacoubian) some 15 years ago for this,” Bedeir said.

“This was an example of the kind of book that brings together political debates in a clever literary form that many people like to read,” he argued.

Al-Aswani’s novels had appealed to readers during the last years of former president Hosni Mubarak to the days of the 25 January Revolution, Bedeir said. He added that the trend had continued with books by Shoukri and that it was now gaining new energy with those of Kheireddin.

“I don’t want to over-predict the trend, and we are still in first week of the fair, but certainly Kheireddin’s novel is gaining attention,” Bedeir said. But he argued that it would not be accurate to suggest that fiction with a political setting is the only thing that is popular with readers this year.

“It would be wrong to think that novels that relate to current trends and immediate developments are always on top, because we are still seeing a great deal of interest in the works of the late Radwa Ashour, and of course the works of Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz are perennially popular. This year we are also republishing works by the 20th-century writer Tawfik Al-Hakim,” he said.

Overall, Bedeir said that around three-quarters of the sales of his publisher, as for others, were in the field of literature.

POST-REVOLUTION: From mid-2011 to mid-2013 there was a surge of interest in non-fiction – a moment of political change when questions on a wide range of issues from success stories of democratic transition, including those integrating Political Islam, to books written on the 18 days of the 25 January Revolution took everyone by surprise.

Then, too, according to several bookstores in Cairo, both private-sector and government-owned, there was an interest among readers in the Muslim Brotherhood and its members, including those who had dropped their association with the organisation.

Speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly on trends in reading in the immediate post-Revolution years, assistants at the bookstores said that “in the two years after the revolution any title that had ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ in the title would sell like hot cakes.”

Cairo International Book Fair

It was not just the Brotherhood in Egypt that prompted the interest of readers, but also that in Tunisia, among other Arab Spring countries. There was also an interest in the Salafi movement, the booksellers said, with readers wanting to learn more about the influence of the Wahhabi trend on the Salafi movement and the influence of Sufi trends on Political Islam in Egypt and across the Arab world.

There was also a moment, the assistants said, when readers were keen to read the memoirs of politicians from the countries of the Arab Spring.

According to Bedeir, memoirs drawing on the forms of fiction were also at the forefront of best-selling books. But a key factor in the success of any book today was the way it could integrate the media and social media, he said.

Moreover Afrah Al-Koubba (Wedding Song), a novel by Naguib Mahfouz, was gaining an attention that it had not had before, Bedeir said. “I think this is because the novel was turned into a TV series last Ramadan and got a lot of attention. Many people are keen to read the book as a result, especially if they missed the TV series and are just seeing it now it is being repeated,” he explained.

“The same thing happened with Blue Elephant, a novel by Ahmed Mourad which was turned into a film. This helped the novel become a big success.”

Social media can also help. According to Mahmoud at the Tanmia Bookstore, two horror stories, one by Ahmed Younis, Nader Fouda, Qabl Al-Bedayah (Nader Fouda… Before the Beginning), and one by Mohamed Sadek, Anta…Ebdaa Al-Abath (You… Let Absurdity Begin), are having a big success with readers.

“One obvious reason is the fact that Ahmed Younis is a radio anchor and has a widely followed programme, while Mohamed Sadek is the writer of Hebta, which was turned into a very successful film last year,” Mahmoud said.

Bedeir also said that social media was responsible for the success of other books today. “The Woman Inside – my Story with Breast Cancer” was a moving account of a woman wining her fight against breast cancer, he said, turning her into a prominent advocate in the fight against the disease. “It is also an account of a woman who is particularly active on social media as part of her advocacy and campaigning,” he said.

The influence of social media on reading has been increasing over recent years, Bedeir noted. Writers who are already Facebook or Twitter figures and who have a large number of followers are likely to sell well as their followers go to buy their books as soon as they are published rather than waiting for reviews.

Cairo International Book Fair

Books recommended on the accounts of prominent social-media figures are also likely to sell well, with some social-media icons already making suggested reading lists available as part of their activities.

Reading trends can also be attributed to the choices of publishers, according to Moustafa Al-Sheikh, co-founder of the Afaq Publishing House. “I think this is what we could safely call the publisher’s responsibility. There is also the question of what makes money as opposed to what may be more enlightening,” he said.

According to Al-Sheikh, thrillers sell well, and there is no particular need to promote them. On the other hand, these are not necessarily the kind of books that necessarily benefit readers.

“I am not trying to pass judgement on readers’ choices or the quality of any particular book. All I am saying is that publishing and distributing books is essentially a mission to enlighten and educate. Readers will come round to a good book if they can find one,” he argued.

Over the past few years since he started Afaq, Al-Sheikh has been noticing growing support from young readers and others having what he calls a “progressive agenda”.

This has meant that he has been able to publish a wide range of titles, including translations of Italian novels and non-fiction books on the US occupation of Iraq, as well as Egyptian novelist Mekkawi Said’s Cairo Swan Song (Taghridat Al-Bagaa) and many titles about Latin America and the impacts of globalisation on developing societies.

Al-Sheikh also takes pride in his on-going exercise of digging up translations of Russian and Latin America literature by Egyptian translators “that some people may not have known about.”

“This is an example of a publisher’s choice. Do I publish a popular translation, or do I publish a text done by an Egyptian translator,” he asked.

Another example, Al-Sheikh added, is about the choice of books to translate – popular self-help books, for example, or books that add to the intellectual atmosphere in Egypt. Ultimately, he argued, there is always the question of budgets.

“When all is said and done, I have to make sure that I am going to generate enough money to keep me going at this particularly challenging moment for the publishing industry,” Al-Sheikh said.

PRICES: Bedeir agreed that the cost of translating, printing and publishing had skyrocketed over recent months, given that the industry is imports-dependent. “I have to buy paper, ink and printing machines,” he said.

According to Bedeir, one of the big questions that have faced him and other publishers this year has been the pricing of books. “We have all had to increase our prices, and we all know that this has impacted on the vast majority of people whose expenses in general have increased in the span of only a few months. However, we have had no choice,” he said.

The most expensive books at the fair this year were imported books, with some translations of popular writers from Latin America jumping from LE100 during the last fair to over LE250 this year. The average price of an imported book from an Arab country has jumped from LE80 to over LE500.

Government-run publishing has been no exception, as this has also seen a significant increase in prices, and the public sector sometimes does not have the diversity and multiple perspectives offered by small private publishers.

“They have very good books for sure, but there are certain titles you will not find here – including translations of contemporary economics and politics titles that one would like to read,” said Nader, a civil servant looking for books at the fair for himself and his six-year-old son.

“This is all I can buy for the entire year. Children’s books are particularly expensive, unfortunately,” he said. The prices of children books were high even in parts of the fair designated for government-supported promotions.

In the fair’s China Corner, now seeing its third year at the Book Fair, Dalia was escorting her two young daughters, aged four and six, to pick up some reading books for them. She was finding everything “much more expensive than it was last year,” she said.

According to staff at leading bookstores in Cairo, trends at the fair are generally an indicator of what bookstores will see throughout the year, and there have been few positive forecasts.

“I guess we will see more interest in less expensive books rather than those offered by the larger bookstores,” said Fathi, a street vendor of newspapers and books.

He acknowledged the fact that these sometimes violate copyrights. “So what,” he asked. “Inexpensive editions were also on sale at the fair. They will always be available because people would rather pay LE30 than LE100, especially now that everything else is so expensive,” he said.

According to Bedeir, the problems of the Book Fair this year should remind the government of its role in supporting the publishing industry as part of its responsibility to protect Egypt’s intellectual soft power.

“No matter what you say about the expanding publishing in the Arab world, almost half of the books produced in the Arab world every year are still produced in Cairo and Egyptian writers in all genres remain the most influential Arab writers,” he said.

 “If we are talking about safeguarding the status of Egypt as a leading cultural hub in the Arab world and the need to promote intellectual enlightenment, we cannot but be talking about the need for the state to support what is now a highly challenged industry,” he said.

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