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Reports from the fair
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 29 - 01 - 2009

Better facilities have been provided at the 41st Cairo International Book Fair, but visitor numbers may have been declining, Nevine El-Aref reports
Going to the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) is a rite of passage, an aspect of living in Cairo and, for many, a family affair. Not only is it an annual event at which books are launched on local and international markets, but it is also a reference point for anyone interested in the life of the mind.
Indeed, for many Cairenes the CIBF is a day out that gathers all the members of the family around a common interest in reading books.
This year's CIBF, held from 21 January to 5 February, is as gargantuan as ever, with 16 Arab and 11 foreign countries participating, along with 765 publishers, 52 of them foreign, 185 Arab and 528 Egyptian. South Korea is participating this year, the first time since the CIBF was founded in 1968, and the United Kingdom is the guest of honour.
On the fringe of the fair, some 300 seminars on different cultural topics and evenings of poetry are being held, and this year's cultural programme as a whole is similar to that of previous years, with features such as the cultural cafés, the poetry evenings, writers and books events and literary encounters.
Two events have marked out this year's fair, however: the announcement of Jerusalem as Arab Cultural Capital for 2009 and the International Forums.
According to Nasser El-Ansari, chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, celebrating Jerusalem as 2009 Arab Cultural Capital within the fair's programme is a way of putting into effect this nomination, made by Arab ministers of culture at their last meeting. The celebration is being marked by seminars on Jerusalem's archaeological sites and history, as well as on the dangers that threaten the city. An exhibition of photographs also relates Jerusalem's history over different time periods.
Al-Nasser Salaheddin, directed by the late film director Youssef Chahine, has been screened as part of the fair's cultural events, as has Yosri Nasrallah's The Gate of the Sun together with other films about Jerusalem.
Arab publishers participating in the CIBF are also celebrating the nomination through displays of books and photographs about Jerusalem. The life and works of well-known Palestinian writers, novelists, musicians, poets and prominent figures who have played a role in the history of Jerusalem are being highlighted, such as the renowned poet Mahmoud Darwish.
At the fair, Palestinian Minister of Culture Tahani Abu Daqa said that due to the Israeli attacks on Gaza Palestine had had to delay the celebrations around Jerusalem as the 2009 Arab Cultural Capital until 22 March.
"It was too difficult to announce the celebration of such an event given the current state of Gaza and the terrible conditions that its inhabitants are living in," Abu Daqa said.
She added that Palestine had prepared a programme of events to celebrate the event, including talks by Arab intellectuals, cultural weeks, and a photographic exhibition displaying the history of Jerusalem held in collaboration with the Arab World Institute in Paris. Books on the history of Jerusalem were being republished, she said, including "365 books, studies and works of research about the city."
Another new event this year, the international forums, aims to host foreign publishers, writers and intellectuals in discussions about the relationships between Egyptian publishers and their foreign colleagues and to make suggestions for stronger cultural exchanges. Safeguarding intellectual property rights is also being discussed at the international forums.
Despite its size, the inauguration of the CIBF last week went smoothly enough, though this year President Hosni Mubarak was not able to open the fair or to hold his traditional meetings with intellectuals because of the crisis in Gaza, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif doing the honours instead.
However, a week after its opening, visitor numbers at the fair seem to be down on previous years, and some people may not even be aware that the fair is on since the event's location on Salah Salem Street in Nasr City looks much as usual, and there is little congestion at the Cairo International Fair Ground.
Observers expect that the crowds will pick up during the fair's second week, however, which coincides with the school vacations. Most visitors to the CIBF are young people, and during the fair's opening week many of them will have been busy with their exams.
A visit to the fair this week indicated that the different areas of the event are as well-organised as ever, though many corridors are empty of people. The exception is the Souq Al-Azbakiya zone, where secondhand books are sold at very low prices.
There were, however, a few disappointments.
Noha Ahmed, a student at the Faculty of Law in Cairo, told the Weekly that "not all the books I wanted are available. I came to the fair in the hope of buying a specific book about international law, but, regretfully, my hopes failed as I couldn't find it, not even in the British wing. I bought a cookery book instead, as my wedding takes place next month," she said.
Leila Fouad, a housewife, seconded Ahmed's point of view about the absence of certain books from the fair. "Reading novels is my favourite hobby," she commented. "So I looked for the ones I had seen advertised on the Internet, but I couldn't find them at the fair."
For Ahmed Hassan, a primary school teacher, "books are too expensive this year." He said that he had not been able to afford the English- language books on grammar and idioms he wanted at LE150 each.
Salwa Nour, a student at the Faculty of Medicine, also complained of the prices of some books, with some science books costing up to LE700.
However, for Mohamed Mahmoud, a cultural reporter at Cairo Radio, this year's fair is better than previous ones, mostly in terms of organisation and the display of the books.
"What attracted my attention was that CIBF visitors are mostly interested in two topics: Islam and technology," Mahmoud told the Weekly.
Mahmoud said that the Souq Al-Azbakiya zone was the most successful, since it provided books at low prices. "I bought 10 political, historical and archaeological books for a total of LE40," he said.
Mahmoud was also impressed with the Saudi Arabian wing of the fair, describing it as "a self- sufficient zone". "It is really a fair inside the fair," he said, adding that it provided everything someone could want while visiting the fair, from books to cultural seminars, performances, films and even a food zone.
For his part, commenting on criticisms of this year's fair El-Ansari vigorously defended the event, saying that "this year's fair is more developed and better organised than before, and it took us a whole year to prepare. The number of visitors is also expected to rise over the coming week as a result of the mid-term holidays."
El-Ansari said that 60,000 visitors a day was not at all bad, especially given the present economic crisis. "The fair has been very successful this year, and in any case we should not judge it until it is over."


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