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Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 10 - 01 - 2006

Nevine El-Aref speaks with Nasser El-Ansari, chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation, about plans for this month's Cairo International Book Fair
Visiting Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) has become something of a tradition for many Cairene families, an annual outing that quickly becomes a reference point in tracing the intellectual upbringing of family members. Yet despite the fact that the first CIBF was held 38 years ago, the event still lags behind other international book fairs, something that was brought home to many when, in 2004, the Arab world was guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair. It was an experience that elicited a major revision of the CIBF's modus operandi.
Last year heralded the start of a new era in the history of this most popular Arab cultural event. The schedule was tightened and a more visitor-friendly approach to the organisation of the many activities that take place during the course of the fair was instituted. Changes began, and this year they will be more noticeable than ever.
Nasser El-Ansari, chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) and the man behind this year's event told Al-Ahram Weekly, "the aim of this year's round is not only to reform the CIBF but to revolutionise the fair in a way that will allow it to stand in comparison with its counterparts in France and Germany."
This year's innovations, he continued, will see the fair finally meeting the highest international standards. A cutting-edge information office is planned and the entire fair grounds will be much easier to navigate, with far more maps and signs than has been the case. What is more, electric transport will be provided between the various exhibition halls and other venues. And this year CIBF will also have its own guest of honour -- Germany.
"There is increasing emphasis on the creation of cultural ties between Arab and foreign countries," says El-Ansari, and the CIBF is determined to play its part.
While the list of the fair's invitees has yet to be finalised, it is likely to include many German literary figures including Nobel laureates, intellectuals, writers and poets. The fair will also build on the success of last year's programming policy which, El-Ansari says, attracted a growing number of publishers.
For the first time in its history, CIBF, in an attempt to enhance its reputation as a trade event, will remain closed to the public for the first two days, when only publishers and exhibitors will be admitted. They will have the opportunity to participate in workshop sessions around the theme of knowledge as commodity.
The goal is to provide an opportunity for Egyptian and Arab publishers to become acquainted with publishing practices elsewhere, and for non- Arab publishers to be able to gain similar experience of publishing practices in the Arab world, says El-Ansari.
Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni believes that this year's attempts to overhaul the event will finally bear fruit. And he is enthusiastic that the GEBO has asked the board of the Frankfurt International Book Fair (FIBF) to be the CIBF's guest of honour in 2010 -- a development he describes as an excellent opportunity to promote cultural diversity.
"It should be seen as yet another attempt by Egypt to assert that cultural diversity is an asset, something in which we should invest as we seek to promote dialogue over confrontation," Hosni told the Weekly.
Indeed the 38th round of the CIBF, which begins on 17 January and will continue until 3 February, is taking as its theme "cultural diversity, globalisation and the impact of information technology on the cultural vision of the young" in an attempt to promote the newly issued UNESCO charter which seeks to protect and support cultural diversity. A variety of topics relating to the theme will be explored in a series of seminars which will focus on, among others, the influence of globalisation on culture and the role of cultural dialogue in supporting religion. Lectures are also planned that will explore the way in which young people are expanding the vocabulary of colloquial Arabic, as idioms and individual words are examined.
El-Ansari is dismissive of allegations that the CIBF has in the past confiscated books or otherwise prevented publishers from displaying volumes at the fair. He insists the CIBF's supreme committee has never confiscated any title, and points out that under Egyptian law the censoring of books is solely the prerogative of the Foreign Prints Censorship Agency (FPCA), which is affiliated to the Ministry of Information. Only the FPCA is empowered to prohibit the entry of foreign publications, be they books or magazines, into Egypt. And last year, according to GEBO's Deputy Chairman Wahid Abdel-Meguid, 22 titles were barred from entry at the Cairo airport by the agency and not 40, as was rumoured at the time.
"All countries reserve the right to prevent the entry of books that might threaten social peace," says El-Ansari, a former director of the Paris- based Institut du Monde Arabe.
In addition to the seminars tackling various aspects of cultural diversity discussions will be held within the framework of the Qadaya fil Thaqafa (Cultural Issues) programme on subjects as diverse as the development of the image of culture, the role of cultural journals, and sessions will, as usual, be dedicated to new writings. Six round-tables will also meet throughout the course of the fair, bringing together leading Egyptian and Arab intellectuals, who will debate the prospects for the publishing industry, children's publishing in Egypt, translation and e-publishing and, more surprising perhaps, the culture of micro-buses in Egypt.
Discussions at both formal venues and the more relaxed "tents" will focus on the most interesting books to have been published in Egypt in 2005, with 33 non-fiction titles and the best 54 novels already included in the programme. The discussions will be open with the author and publisher of the titles in attendance. Screenings of films will also take place, offering visitors a chance to review many of the classics of Egyptian cinema.
The four million visitors expected in Nasr City will probably be struck most, though, by changes in the way the whole event looks. The fair has been completely redesigned and many more facilities will be provided compared with previous rounds. Fold out maps detailing locations and routes will be distributed free of charge with tickets, visitors will be able to travel the often-long distances between venues on specially provided electric vehicles, and they will be able to carry their purchases home in newly designed carrier bags bearing the CIBF logo.
Germany, the fair's guest of honour, will be exhibiting 860 new titles. Johannes Ebert, the Goethe Institute's regional manager in the Middle East and North Africa, sees the event as "an occasion to reinvigorate the friendly cultural relations that exist between Egypt and Germany and resume the exchange initiatives that started with the Arab world being the Frankfurt Book Fair's guest of honour in 2004".
In the 350 square-metre pavilion designed by German architect Sabina Wismoller, Germany will be represented by the FIBF, the German Embassy, the Goethe Institute and Deusche Wella. They will be joined by the German University in Cairo (GUC) and the German Academic Exchange Service as well as the German Archeological Institute and Chamber of Commerce.
There will also be a Frankfurt city display and German-sponsored activities will take place at the CIBF's fringe venues such as the maqha thaqafi (Culture Café). Musical and artistic events will be hosted by venues including El-Sawy Culture Wheel and the Metro Art Gallery, while the Cairo Opera House will be the scene of the presentation of the German project to host the 2006 World Cup. "We are trying," says Ebert, "to produce as big a programme as possible."
"German culture is permanently present in Egypt but being the CIBF's guest of honour is an opportunity to introduce the country to the masses. It will also spur on German cultural organisations."
Seminars on German-related topics will include the image of the Arab world in the German media, and a comparison of the German and Arabic book markets. And throughout the duration of the fair the young German writer Tomas Brossig -- Cairo participant in the Goethe's Midad literary exchange project -- will report on his experiences daily on the web.
Some 400 children's titles will be presented under the title "Dissimilarity has its own beauty", and two days will be dedicated to children when the pavilion will feature DJ/VJ performances and an exhibition of illustrations from children's books. A web page for teenagers, LI-LAC, will be launched during the fair, and puppet shows, brass bands and a fireworks display are all planned on the exhibition grounds.

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