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Centenaries and censorship
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 31 - 01 - 2008

Mahmoud El-Wardani on the activities of the 40th Cairo International Book Fair
Forty years ago, in January 1968, the late Dr Suheir El-Qalamawi, then- president of the government's top publishing house, organised the first book fair in Egypt, indeed in the whole region. The initiative was seen by some as a reaction to the 1967 defeat: instead of giving in to the wave of despair that swept Egypt, El-Qalamawi wanted to revive cultural life in the country.
It is only fitting, therefore, that the organisers of the 40th Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) are planning to pay tribute to El-Qalamawi during the event. The centenaries of several institutions of learning in the country -- primarily Cairo University -- will also be celebrated during CIBF. Seminars on the role of the plastic arts in society, the problems facing artists, and the art market will be held on the occasions of the centenary of the Faculty of Fine Arts. To mark the centenary of Egyptian cinema, several seminars will be held to discuss the film industry and landmark films. As part of the effort to pay tribute to "pioneers," several works by Ahmad Lutfi El-Sayyid, a towering academic of the first half of last century, have been reprinted, including his translations of Aristotle's writings on politics and ethics.
This year, 16 Arab and 12 foreign countries are taking part in the fair. Among the 743 publishers represented in the event, 522 are Egyptian, 178 Arab, and 43 non-Arab. The guest of honour is the United Arab Emirates, a country that has recently staked claims to cultural leadership on the Arab front.
The now familiar Cultural Café is back this year with seminars focusing on civil society, independent theatre, short stories, and bloggers. Several writers are to engage in public debate in special sessions dubbed "Writers and Books," during which authors discuss their new books with the audience. Roundtable discussions centering on translation, publishing, and the classics are also planned. A forum known as "Literary Encounter" has been devoted to young writers to present their work to the public.
Europe doesn't seem to be taking much interest in CIBF this year, unlike two years ago when Germany was the guest of honour. France, however, is the exception, being amply represented by several authors who have published on Middle Eastern issues. The American University in Cairo Press is organising book signings for Egyptian writers.
The UAE, the star of the event, is organising art exhibitions, award ceremonies, literary seminars, poetry readings, and fashion shows, and not only on the fair grounds. The UAE organisers have events planned for the Opera House, the Manesterli Palace, the Mahmoud Mokhtar Museum, and the Arts Complex. Representatives of the UAE literary endowments and translation agencies are in Cairo to supervise the activities.
Word has it that ten Arab novelists have been invited to CIBF, but the fair's pamphlet, unfortunately, does not mention their names. The CIBF organisers say that they intend to launch a new periodical during the fair, entitled "The Novel: Issues and Horizons"; it remains to be seen if this will materialise.
If you were waiting for the fair to meet your favourite government official, don't hold your breath. Most government dignitaries, who used to have discussion sessions with the public are staying away this year -- some say because the public is too disgruntled with the recent price rises and the depressing prospect of subsidies being abolished altogether.
In general, don't even expect all you read in the pamphlet to come true. Some seminars will be announced and not held. Others will be held but without the main speakers, whom no one bothered to invite. Meanwhile, the censors have been in action. Books by the Lebanese writers Elias Khouri and Alaweya Subh were banned on the first day of the fair -- although they've been available in previous rounds.
This fair is not about controversy. Although the animated debates of previous years caught the imagination of the public, many complained that the event should sell books, not generate debate or indulge in rabble rousing. This year's fair is, therefore, playing it safe. It is selling books, and keeping the debate muffled.

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