Books are their weapons and public parks their battlefield against shallowness and ignorance. Sarah Eissa looks at the Culture Corner
Piles of books in a public park are being checked by a couple of people while others are singing and another group are debating. The scene is not very common in Egypt so should you come across one. Get closer, for what you will see is this: eight young friends who in 2011 started the Culture Corner, a non-profit initiative to raise awareness about reading specifically and culture in general, through entertainment and education. The group later recruited volunteers and is currently around 25. “We started right after the revolution. We were passionate to do something positive for Egypt and have a good impact on people,” says Asmaa Al-Badrawi, 26, co-founder and head of public relations at the Culture Corner. Al-Badrawi believes that because of the revolution most people engaged in political debates but without enough knowledge. “To form an opinion and persuade people of it, a person should know the facts and become exposed to different opinions by reading,” Al-Badrawi explains.
To reach their aim, the Culture Corner organises events where bookstores, shops and non-governmental organisations exhibit their services in public parks in various districts in Cairo. Al-Badrawi said they plan to reach governorates and franchises; what hinders them is the lack of resources.
Most Culture Corner events are held in well-off areas like Zamalek and Maadi. Al-Badrawi said they face difficulties in going to lower middle class neighbourhoods because they lack parks. Parks embrace people of different ages, cultural backgrounds and social status, all in the same area. She recalled that in a previous event they tried to choose such an area, but some bookstores did not want to participate. She added that to make such a move they would need extra security and more volunteers.
Al-Badrawi says they manage to receive licences from the districts they are in for using public places. But the so-called licences are mostly verbal and are sometimes meaningless. The good thing is that the team does not face security problems as police stations secure the events using a police patrol which passes by to make sure all is safe.
According to Al-Badrawi, the events are mainly based on corners for books, children and arts as well as debates. For example, the writer Omar Taher once discussed the current situation in Egypt with participants. Another time they held a book fair and discussed Kitab Maloosh Ism (A book without a title) by the writer Ahmed Al-Esseili.
Other activities vary from one event to another, which includes underground bands, standup comedy and public figure speakers with different backgrounds, perspectives and culture. They sometimes have a problem when a person does not show up or apologises on short notice.
Al-Badrawi adds that besides this problem the initiative is facing shortage in resources. They could not register as an NGO because they could not afford its registration fees. The events are also self-funded by the initiative volunteers, in addition to receiving symbolic fees from exhibitors. “Some bookstores refuse paying such fees even though it equalises the cost of around two books from their bookstore,” Al-Badrawi commented. However, the initiative tries to cover expenses through the “Donate Your Book” campaign in which they receive donated books, then sell them at nominal cost. But this still does not cover the expenses.
“The Hindawi non-profit foundation for education and culture and Academic Bookshop are the cultural sponsors for this month. But they are not funding the event. They both believe so much in the idea and are supporting us,” says Al-Badrawi.
Sarah Shokr, 24, a senior marketing specialist at Hindawi foundation, says that they are aiming that people from the Arab world read books written in Arabic, not only in English. She says Hindawi has activities and campaigns which include presenting free books online and selling books without making a profit. “The Culture Corner supports the same idea of ours. We participate in their events as a way to persuade people to read,” Shokr says.
Hadeel Abdel-Fattah, 22, a translator and one of the event’s guest visitors, says that the donating books campaign attracted her to the Culture Corner. “I liked the idea that reading should be a necessity in our society,” Abdel-Fattah said. She also believes being in a public area would attract people. However, she added that the initiative needs to be advertised more.
Mohamed Suleiman, 24, of customer service in Alef bookstore in Maadi, says their bookstore tries to reach people and bring them books by participating in exhibitions. Suleiman believes that the Culture Corner is a way to encourage people to read. “People who are not interested in reading can be attracted by the crowd and the music of the event,” Suleiman says. “If a small novel attracts them after they arrive, it will be the start of reading other books.”