The Cairo International Book Fair, the world’s second largest book fair, receives some six million visitors annually – but who exactly in Egypt reads?
Certainly not Cairene commuters. Unlike other metropolises, books are a rarity on the underground – except in Ramadan, when a flurry of religious tracts appears. The Metro’s overcrowded and noisy carriages are admittedly not the ideal venue to lose oneself in reading. But has the absent book succumbed merely to the pressure of numbers inside the carriage? Or – if it is indeed absent – is its absence indicative of the pressure of stupefying economic and political circumstances which have rendered reading a superfluous luxury?
Best-selling Egyptian novelist Alaa El-Aswany rejects this idea. “Of course the Egyptian public reads. They might not read on the Metro like in the West but the West is not the only model. People read in their homes.
A UNESCO survey suggested that while people in Senegal read four books on average, people in the Arab world read the equivalent of four pages a year. El-Aswany is skeptical.
“The survey was very questionable and was part of the propaganda used to justify the invasion of Iraq. It’s simply not true to say people in the Arab region don’t read. My last novel, for example, sold over 100,000 copies – and it’s not cheap.
“Chicago, El-Aswany’s last novel, follows on the success of his spectacularly successful work, “The Yacoubian Building. The best-selling Arabic novel of 2002 and 2003, it was subsequently made into a hit film in 2006.
El-Aswany’s success is all the more remarkable given that according to the 2003 UNDP Arab Development Report, a bestseller in the Arab region may have a print run of only 5,000 copies – in a region of over more than 284 million people.
“The Yacoubian Building is indeed regarded by many in the business as a turning-point in the Egyptian book industry. “‘The Yacoubian Building’ changed everything: no other Egyptian novel has had four print runs in its first year, not even any of Naguib Mahfouz’s work, Bassem Sharaf of the Merit Publishing House told Daily News Egypt in the bibliophile heaven of Merit’s tiny and chaotic storeroom.
“When you consider the general state of repression in the country, when someone writes the things that nobody will speak about then it’s no surprise that the book sold well – people found themselves in ‘The Yacoubian Building’ story, Sharaf said.
Established in 1998 by writer and journalist Mohamed Hashem, it was Merit that first published “The Yacoubian Building. Hashem is a founder member of Writers and Artists for Change, an offshoot of the opposition Kefaya movement. It is a philosophy of experimentation – and resistance to censorship – which governs Merit’s choice of mostly young, first-time authors who, Sharaf said, “wouldn’t be able to publish anywhere else.
Hashem won the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award in 2006 and currently publishes 50-60 titles per year. It has so far published 500 fiction and non-fiction works. Among last year’s bestsellers were writings from Ibrahim Eissa and Belal Fadl, both outspoken critics of the government.
Publishing houses like Merit (and the recently-established Malameh) are giving young authors a voice. “The Yacoubian Building may have revived the Egyptian public’s interest in books, but it is the appearance of new bookshops over the last six years which has sustained the appetite for reading – if only among a certain, moneyed, segment of the population.
Diwan, whose flagship store opened in Zamalek in 2002, was the first Egyptian bookshop predicated on the idea that the book-buying experience is a pleasure rather than a process. It offers its primarily upper-middle class customers a range of multimedia products, which they can peruse before repairing to the in-store coffee shop.
On whether the Egyptian public reads, Nadia Wassef, one of Diwan’s co-founders, in her turn asked, “Well who do you mean by Egyptian? Rural or urban?
The distribution of publishers’ outlets, almost all of which are restricted to downtown Cairo, reflects not only an urban bias, but a preference for a narrow area of the capital itself. Diwan and Dar El-Shorouk only very recently opened new stores in Heliopolis.
Wassef – an avid reader who admits to suffering from a “substance abuse problem with books – believes that if it is true that many Egyptians do not read, this is due to the fact that reading is an acquired habit.
“If you haven’t started smoking by the age of 25 you’ll never be a smoker, and it’s the same thing with reading, which is a habit which has to form early. “In our generation there are so many more challenges to reading than there were previously, whereas when my mother was a teenager what else did they have to do? These days, reading competes with television, retail outlets, the internet.If you give a kid the choice of reading a book or going to CityStars mall, he won’t choose the book.
Compounding the problem is the absence of good university and public libraries which are essential given that for many Egyptians, a book purchase is an out-of-reach luxury.
Government initiatives, such as the National Book Project, have attempted to make books available by selling them at LE 2 or LE 3 each.
The Suzanne Mubarak project Maktabet El ‘Osra (Family Library) also boomed in the mid-90s with diverse translations of world literature classics that were sold for LE 1 or LE 2. By the end of the decade, and with the enormous technological advancement in new media, the Family Library project fizzled as the number of printed publications was reduced drastically in the past eight years.
El-Aswany dismisses these projects as suffering from “the diseases which any government-backed activity suffers from in this country. No matter how good the intentions are, when you don’t have democracy – and consequently you don’t have the right people in the post – any project inevitably fails.
Mohamed Talaat, a co-founder of Dar El-Kotob (www.darelkotob.net) echoed El-Aswany. “Egypt won’t move forward except through its civil society and there are no civil society organizations concerned with encouraging reading.
For its part, the recently launched Dar El-Kotob project attempts to make for the virtual absence of book marketing in Egypt. “Between 9,000 and 20,000 books are published each year and readers don’t hear about more than perhaps 5 percent of them because books are simply not advertised except by the very biggest publishers because TV and newspaper adverts are too expensive, Talaat told Daily News Egypt.
The Dar El-Kotob website, which is currently still in its testing phase, aims to list the details of every book published in Egypt – where it is sold, how much it costs, other books written by the author – and allows users to rate books out of five, leave comments and receive email notifications of new books published. It also lists the bestselling titles in fiction, politics and other areas.
Talaat rejects the notion that reading is not popular in Egypt. “People do read. The number of visitors at the Cairo Book Fair proves that. The problem is marketing; we’re in a consumer age when there are adverts for everything except books.
And what do Egyptians like to read? According to the 2003 Arab Human Development Report, religious books account for 17 percent of all books published in Arab countries, compared to a world average of about 5 percent. Books on social sciences, literature and the arts in the Arab region, on the other hand, “command a much smaller percentage, according to the report.
According to Facebook, young Egyptians are big Dan Brown fans. The top nine books listed in its Egypt network are: Harry Potter , the Alchemist , The Da Vinci Code , Angels and Demons and the Quran. The number eight entry is “I hate reading.
Wassef says that Diwan’s bestsellers are in the modern fiction, politics and mind, body and spirit categories. She also says that books about the history of Cairo, Egyptian style and Egyptian cooking are popular, and that they are being bough
t by Egyptians rather than foreigners. What is her explanation for this?
“It’s partly because we Egyptians want to know how we’re represented, how others see us, and partly because we’re a little bit self-obsessed – a bit narcissistic.
The millions who will flock to the 40th Book Fair over the next fortnight prove that reading in Egypt is alive and well. Why then, is there a tendency to believe that books have been abandoned? The final word should perhaps go to dentist, author and apparent saviour of the Egyptian book market, El-Aswany.
“The government repeats the same things; People don’t read. They say this about our young people, too, but you only have to look at the internet to see Egyptians do write, and do read. It was very young Egyptian bloggers who changed history when they put videos showing police torture online. The problem is that we Egyptians have a tendency to believe anything negative written about us.