CAIRO: For the past 39 years, January in Cairo has always meant the following: nice weather; the mid-year vacation for students; and the Cairo International Book Fair.
The 39th round of the second largest book fair in the world (the Frankfurt fair still reigns supreme) opened last Wednesday and will end on Feb. 2.
The fair is pretty huge. Last year s visitors were estimated at 6 million and this year, the number is expected to grow. That s why transportation can be a bit tricky.
If you re driving to the Nasr City fair grounds, you probably won t find any nearby parking slots regardless of when you choose to go. Most likely, you ll be forced to park somewhere on Salah Salem Street or Abbaseya and take a 10-minute walk.
It s not advisable to take a cab either. You won t have a problem getting there, but you’ll find it extremely difficult to get your hands on an empty cab to take you home, especially around 6 or 7 pm.
The selling outlets are available at 13 large halls in addition to more than 30 small ones all over the fair grounds.
If you re only looking for English language books, you should not steer off the AUC press hall and the Italian pavilion.
AUC offers an excellent, albeit concise, selection that ranges from politics, contemporary and classic Egyptian and world fiction, philosophy, business, religion, modern and Ancient Egypt, language and other human interest books.
Highlights including Barack Obama s first book Dreams From My Father, Saad Eddin Ibrahim s Egypt, Islam and Democracy, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid s No One Sleeps in Alexandria and the much talked about Anne Rice novel Christ The Lord: Out of Egypt.
Discounts on text books and some encyclopedias are staggering, reaching 90 percent with some of them.
Classics are offered at an excellent reduced price also. You can buy Dostoevsky s The Brothers Karamazov or Conversations with Socrates – which would usually cost LE 60 to 80 – for LE 20.
The cost of modern fiction is high though, and the selection is not that eclectic. Nonetheless, it s the best in the fair and, with the price cuts it s still cheaper than buying at any other regular bookstore.
As for the Italian section, although it contains a wide, diverse selection of English language books, this diversity is incomparable to the Ahram wing, which arguable boasts the biggest selection of literary works.
The Abol Hol library section contains the least expensive English books but the packaging and print quality is not so appealing.
If you re intending to visit one outlet in there, make sure it s the International Language Bookstore. The store s section features the best set of world classics translated into English such as Gogol, Chekhov, Ibsen, Tennessee Williams, Balzac, Goethe and Moliere for LE 20 to LE 23 per book. Don t get distracted by the more expensive editions though; it’s the same content after all. The only difference is that you ll be saving LE 40-50 when you buy the cheaper editions.
There is a nice compilation for kids too including tiny Star Wars books and picture illustrated abridged versions of Peter Pan and The Wind and the Willows to name a few. There are also some cute coloring books, a favorite for young children, of Harry Potter and Pokémon.
The Ahram grand hall, as mentioned, lays claim to the most diverse English language collection covering any field you re curious about from medicine, pottery, computer science, media and marketing. Books about any imaginable subject can be found there.
In addition, Ahram carries the best arts and photography books in the fair while its literature compilation offers autobiographies and Graham Greene novels unavailable elsewhere.
Ahram s books are a tad pricier than other publishing houses but some of these items are totally worth their price.
If the choice of English books seems limited, Arabic language books are a different story. Almost every step of the fair grounds is filled with outlets and publishers selling books as diverse as the stars in heaven.
Dar El Shorouk s separate branch near the front gate and its other section at Hall Six should be your destination if Arabic novels are your interest. The publishing house features the hottest new novels like Alaa El Aswany s Chicago, Khaled El Khameesy s Hawadeet El Mashaweer and the reissued Naguib Mahfouz s notorious Awlad Haretna along with a comprehensive retrospective of Galal Amin, Ihsan Abdel Qoddous, Mohammed Hassanien Heikal, Abbas El Akkad and many others.
The majority of participating Arab publishers’ offerings are not encouraging and revolve around a limited number of topics and sciences – Islamic-related books and a few dry ones about law, management and geography.
France s branch has quite a good selection of diverse types of French novels, dictionaries and learning manuals. Hall three encompasses a major variety of German books via the Goethe Institute; while Alpha Marketing Co. comprises a very good range of German books for children.
The fair s guest of honor Italy is in the same hall displaying classic and modern Italian works next to Italian translations of literary masterpieces like “Dr. Zhivago and other translations of books about Ancient Egypt.
Religious Christian books are sold through Dar El Ketab El Mokadas in Hall Two together with a store called Maria Von selling Christian memorabilia and decorative items.
Halls Three and Four are almost entirely dedicated to Islamic books, Arabic dictionaries and grammar except for Syria which offers some very good translations of books about film and theater.
Stay away from the Cairo Book Fair for Children section: it s the biggest disappointed in this year s fair.
But be sure to visit the Naguib Mahfouz tribute spot at Hall Fifteen. All his works are divided into various categories (myths, realism, early novels) accompanied by information sheets about his life and novels.
The one notable aspect of the fair is the censors long-lasting policy to block any books that offend Islam or speak positively about Israel. You may find all Salman Rushdi s works except, as usual, for The Satanic Verses and you may detect many books that insult Christians, Jews and atheists thrown all over the place.
Anyhow, it s highly recommended to steer clear from all eateries. If you re desperate for a bite, though, stick to the small bistro near Ahram hall. Its shawerma is not bad and, most importantly, clean.
Final pointers: don t forget to use the free shuttle buses roaming everywhere; don t take too much cash on you because you’ll find yourself spending more than what you planned to; and don t forget to wear a comfortable pair of shoes.
One more thing – all the best books are sold during the first few days so don t wait till it’s too late.