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Of books and bread
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 02 - 2016

The queue from the Cairo Fair Metro station (founded in 2014) to the Nasr City Fair Grounds was so long I thought I wouldn't make it before the closing hour of the 47th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF).
Officially inaugurated last week by Prime Minister Sherif Ismail under the slogan “Culture in Confrontation”, the fair brings together 850 publishers (550 Egyptian, 250 non-Egyptian Arab and 50 from outside the Arab world) representing 31 countries (21 from Africa and the Middle East and 13 from further afield), in addition to 118 second-hand book kiosks at Sour Al-Azbakeya. Bahrain is this year's guest of honour and it is the focus of a series of seminars, lectures, poetry readings and folk performances as well as documentary screenings.
“There are always awful security measures. I've been waiting for two hours now and it seems there is no hope of entering the fair,” said university student Noha Saudi. She pointed out that two entrances are not enough for the large number of visitors. “The Nasr City Fair Grounds board should raise the number of gates on Salah Salem Street to facilitate entry and exit.” Saudi said that after an hour of waiting many left the queue and went home. Mohamed Mohamaddein, another university student, agrees. He feels that one should not have to queue up for longer than 20 minutes.
For his part Farouk Abdalla, a young professional, criticised the lack of parking provided, explaining that there is not enough space in the allocated area outside the gates. “This is the third time I've come to the fair and every time I spend over an hour looking for parking – useless,” he said.
“Today,” Abdalla added, “I used the Metro and it was a brilliant idea to save time and effort. I was lucky enough to wait for only 45 minutes and then went on my exploratory mission around the fair's different pavilions...”
Thankfully, this year I was not lost as usual in the vast 80,000 sq m of the fair grounds – thanks to the Am Amin app, a smart-phone guide including detailed maps as well as lists of publishers and book titles. It made finding my way around the fair fun. This app was implemented last year and is provided together with a printed, colour map distributed in the fair. Walking through the display halls, I was impressed by the variety and sheer number of Arabic books available.
Bahrain, the fair's guest of honour this year, has the largest pavilion ever, in the main display hall as well as outside it. A series of seminars, lectures, musical concerts, poetry readings and folk performances as well as documentaries on the history of the Bahrain and its plastic art movement are also organised at this location. As I walked through the various tents, the crowds belied the stereotypical view of Egyptians as people who do not read, with only the privately educated élite being bookworms. Contrary to all that, the fair was filled with Egyptians from all walks of life. Still, however, the majority roamed the grounds without buying any books, with many seeing the fair as a cheap family outing or as a kindergarten for the children until they finish the day's work.
Sour Al-Azbakeya may be cheap but it is not pleasant, and most book buyers were to be found in the pavilions. The largest crowds were at the open-air theatre performances and the indoor plays, concerts and the children's zones where children draw and have their faces painted or attend puppet theatre.
Many complained of the books' high prices at the fair, but the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) has no authority over prices. “It is up to the publishers,” GEBO Head Haitham Al-Hag said, adding that GEBO's own books — subsidised by the Ministry of Culture — are priced very reasonably at LE 8-LE 20, with the Family Library Series selling for only LE 2 and second-hand books available at Sour Al-Azbakeya at a 75 percent discount on their old cover price.
Other initiatives he mentioned include the Gift of a Book and Book Delivery, the latter in collaboration with Akhbar Al Yom. To sell more books at lower prices, Al-Hag said another initiative was launched this year in collaboration with the Ministry of Supply and Internal Trade and the Batana Association. Entitled Kitab wa Raghif (or “Book and Bread”), the initiative offers a 90 per cent discount on all books sold with its logo to holders of the subsidised foodstuffs supply card. Al-Hag announced that more than 300 thousand people visited the CIBF in three days.
“As a book lover, roaming around the fair was a tremendous experience,” said Elham Bakr, an accountant at an auditing company. She went on to say that at Sour Al-Azbakeya she was overwhelmed with old posters, magazines and long-discarded novels with love messages scrawled inside their covers. “I am a sucker for that kind of thing,” she said. Mahmoud Abdel Fatah, a teacher at a secondary school, feels the books in the pavilions are a little more expensive than last year's. He could only buy half the number of books he wanted.
Mariam Al-Biyali, another professional, says Sour Al-Azbakeya is the best place to buy books because it offers everything cheaply. She only takes issue with its poor organising, which borders on chaos. Book vendors, she said, use their voices to promote their wares giving the impression of being at a vegetable and fruit market in a slum area. People also pick up books, take a look and throw them back on the tables without respect.
“Regretfully,” according to Nada Alaa, yet another professional book lover, “the level of proficiency in the fair's organisation is dropping from one year to the next. Even the ushers cannot help you simply because they themselves don't know how to get from one place to another.” Maps are hard to come by, toilets are few and unhygienic and rubbish is everywhere in evidence.
Yet for Ahmed Dardir, a government employee, the fair is an annual phenomenon that has maintained its success, with publishers efficiently selling and recommending books to visitors. “The Bahrain musical concerts were also very distinguished, as well as their art performances and the group performance at the open-air theatre.” Meanwhile, Mona Hosny, a housewife, feels the fair is not so much a book market as a cheap outing with performances she could not afford to attend at the Cairo Opera House. Mark Boutros and his sister Christina, for their part, were very pleased with the children's workshop in which the children could indulge their painting talent. They wished the area dedicated to it was larger.
For publishers, the fair has not yet yielded its benefits. “It is too early to decide whether this year's fair is a success,” says publisher Ahmed Saad, pointing out that the book fair opened to public only five days ago and still has ten days to go. Representatives of Al-Sherouk, Rawafed, the Egyptian Lebanese Publishing House, Kalimat and Kotobkhan all agreed.
One controversial issue in this year's CIBF is the Arabic version of the Hebrew book AlfLeila.com (ThousandAndOneNights.com), written by an expert on Arab affairs in the Israeli Army Radio and published by the Amedico Press for Publishing and Distribution and Afak Academy. The book reviews Arab life and explains why it led to the Arab Spring, reopening the vexed question of cultural normalisation with Israel after signing 1979 peace treaty. Poet Ibrahim Dawoud says the cultural community's position on cultural normalisation with Israel is an unequivocal no. He describes the existence of such a book at the fair as a disaster and wonders how officials have allowed it.
But, contrary to this view, novelist Said Al-Kafrawi supports the availability of this book because it gives Egyptians the opportunity to find out more about Israelis and their thinking. “Over the last few years Israel managed to find out everything about the Arabs, it translates all our books, novels and literature in order to know more about us,” Al-Kafrawi says, explaining that in June 1967 we lost the war because of the our policy of closing off Israel and when we get closer to the minds and thinking of the Israelis we were able to defeat them.
For his part Amr Zakariya, who translated the book, said that by monitoring Egypt's social problems that led to the 2011 January revolution the book provides Egyptians with a great opportunity to find out about Israelis and how they think see us. He went on to say that it is not the only Israeli book to be published and put on sale in the fair: “Every year I participate in the fair with at least three books from the Hebrew.” The National Translation Centre is also participating in this round with Hebrew books reviewed and prefaced by Ahmed Howeidi, the professor of Jewish Studies at Cairo University.

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