Imagine sitting in a public space and assembling your friends around you. A stranger walks by, examines your companions, and chooses one to take home – perhaps in exchange for a friend of his own. That is just what a group of individuals decided to do in a unique event held at the Sawy Culture Wheel this week.
After all, as Ernest Hemingway once said, “There is no friend as loyal as a book.
On Tuesday, El-Sawy’s River Hall was awash in crowds and chatter as old books found new homes. Thousands of books – from dusty, leatherbound Arabic encyclopedias to well-thumbed English paperbacks – were on display at Egypt’s first Book Exchange Festival and Used Book Sale.
The event was the brainchild of Dar Al-Kotob (http://daralkotob.net ), a web-based venture that seeks to document all books issued in Egypt and to provide the necessary tracking information, thus supplying a heretofore ‘missing link’ between the ‘producers’ (authors and publishers) and ‘consumers’ (the reading audience).
Created one year ago by four young men, the website now boasts some impressive achievements: 120,000 monthly visitors, a mailing list of 85,000, and the vocal support of a choice coterie of writers, including Arabic Booker Prize winner Bahaa Taher, popular fiction author Nabil Farouk, and poetess Fatma Na’oot.
Most impressive of all is the ingenuity of its community-based online book exchange project, which kicked off three months ago. The project is vaguely similar to the delightful BookCrossing (www.bookcrossing.com), whose nearly 800,000 members in 130 countries drop books in random public spots to be ‘found’ by other members, read, and passed on and on, around the world. “Where books take on a life of their own, proclaims the site. “Set your books free and your mind will follow.
Dar Al-Kotob’s book exchange slogan is set along a similar rhetoric of liberation: “Don’t be selfish – Don’t imprison your knowledge!
Mohammad Mofeed, one of the four founding fathers of Dar Al-Kotob, had not heard of BookCrossing, but explained that his program is less whimsical, more utilitarian. It is nevertheless just as powerful in its goals: to provide the public with convenient, low-cost access to reading material and “spread the culture of reading.
Members of the site post lists of books they are ready to pass on, alongside lists of books they wish to acquire, plus contact details. Contact is then made and a method of transfer is agreed upon: an exchange or a loan, in person or through the mail. Mofeed shared the charming story of a girl from Mansoura and a boy from Cairo who exchanged a series of books, delivered by mail to central libraries in their respective cities, never once meeting face to face.
With the overwhelming and ongoing positive response to the online program, the idea to hold a Book Exchange Festival “on the ground was born.
There is something so revealing about poking through someone’s spread of old books, much like peering into their fridge or scrolling through their mobile phone. A hulking young lad, whose chin has darkened with the promise of emergent facial hair, fidgets behind a table laden with pocket-sized “Ragol Al-Mostaheel (The Impossible Man) pulp adventure. Across the room, a man in shirtsleeves cups his chin in his palm, elbow resting despondently on a stack of shiny tomes with such titles as “Managerial Decision Modeling and “Reading Financial Reports for Dummies.
Of the several dozen “vendors baring their souls, most of the people I approached spoke about books in tones that betray a sense of possessiveness, a lifelong friendship. So how does one decide to let go?
“It took a year to choose these, said Wiam Zahran, a college student who is here with her sister and cousin, gesturing to a huge collection of books artfully arranged by subject: tattered English romances, suspense/thriller, “Flash comics, and a motley assortment of Arabic volumes. “But these are the ones we’ve read a lot and won’t be reading again. There’s a lot more at home.
I thumb through a small section in the middle containing such modern classics as Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons. “Books from school – obviously! she laughs. I ease one open and smile at the half-chewed notes in margins, the daydreaming doodles.
“There are books you can’t let go of, said Sherif Ali, “and some you just read once. His table – lined with sleek, almost-new novels – reads like a who’s who of contemporary Arabic literature. Some, such as Alaa El-Aswany’s “Friendly Fire, are present in multiple copies. He explains that he is part of a book club at Ain Shams University.
As the night drew closer, the activity, energy, and conversation in the River Hall showed no signs of flagging. Ultimately, it seemed that most visitors – estimated at over 1,000 in the course of a single day – had not come prepared with books of their own: the lure of purchasing used books at nominal sums having overshadowed the initial concept of a book exchange.
Still, I walked away from the bright hall feeling that the festival had fulfilled its purpose: to breathe new life into old paper and print; to pass on not only prosaic knowledge – but the experiences we create, the intimate companionship we cultivate with books.