CAIRO: “To die is to go into the collective unconscious, said German Nobel Laureate Herman Hesse; and what better way to do that than by spreading ideas.
That was the mission of Egypt’s iconic publisher Hajj Mohamed Madbouli (1938-2008), who died last week at age 70 after a battle with cancer.
The self-taught owner of Madbouli Publishing House and the Madbouli bookstore franchise began his career at the tender age of six, selling newspapers with his uncle and father near Galaa bridge, where Cairo Sheraton lies today.
Known among the intelligentsia who frequented the Downtown area at Café Riche as a resourceful young man who could find any book they needed within 24 hours, he soon cultivated a reputation that helped him publish his first books at the age of 20, the earliest titles being translations of Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus.
A dedicated patron of young minds, Madbouli was known for placing his stakes equally on young unknown authors and the established canon of Egypt’s literary scene.
His printing presses also churned out their share of controversial poetry and prose. In one newspaper interview he said that throughout a career spanning over half a century, he was sued 25 times, the most famous case being that of Alaa Hamed’s novel “Distance in a Man’s Mind.
Hamed, a tax inspector, was tried in 1990 on blasphemy charges for a book published by Madbouli recounting an imaginary journey to paradise, where the hero finds that the prophets are not what we’ve been told they are. The author concluded his work with the proposition that anyone who believes in religion should be put in a sanatorium.
In the late sixties, Madbouli was also targeted by the authorities for the publication of a scathing critique of then president Gamal Abdel Nasser in a poem by Syrian Nizar Qabbani following Egypt’s 1967 defeat against Israel.
Also during the Nasser era, he was arrested and interrogated for selling an edition of the International Herald Tribune carrying an article attacking the Egyptian president.
Madbouli was handed downed a total of eight years in suspended prison sentences, each one coupled with an uproar by the country’s leading intellectuals.
But that didn’t stop him publishing 42 titles by firebrand feminist and secular thinker Nawal El Saadawy, until a little over one year ago when he was caught in the eye of the storm in a conflict with the very intellectuals who had long supported him over his decision to discontinue and confiscate copies of Saadawy’s religiously contentious novel “God Resigns at the Summit Meeting.
Most recently, Madbouli published ex-policeman Omar Afifi’s book of questions and answers informing Egyptians of their rights and how to deal with abusive police officers accordingly. “How Not to Get Smacked on Your Neck was soon declared a disturbance to public order, was confiscated and its author forced to flee the country after direct threats to his life and to his family.
Following decades of cultivating minds and enriching Egypt’s intellectual scene, Madbouli, in one of the last interviews he gave before his death, lamented the state of the Egyptian publishers union, which unlike its counterpart in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, for example, continues to be fragmented and marred by the unethically competitive attitude of individual publishers, many of whom doubling as informants, slipping reports to the censorship authority against their market rivals.
The inspiring success story and vision of Hajj Madbouli is in itself worthy of a biography. Since it will probably not be ready by the upcoming Cairo International Book Fair in January, the Ministry of Culture must at least commemorate this man with a publishing award under his name.
But even if Madbouli ends up forgotten on some dusty bookshelf in the ministry’s archives, Egyptians will still continue to remember him for generations. Indeed he has become part of our collective unconscious. May he rest in peace.
Rania Al Malkyis Chief Editor of Daily News Egypt.