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Soor el Azbakeya: Cairo's century-old book market
Published in Youm7 on 04 - 06 - 2011

Among Cairo's dozens of markets and tourist attractions lies an oft overlooked gem: a winding maze of over 130 bookstores where acclaimed writers and former presidents once bought their books.
Soor el Azbakeya, literally ‘the fence of Azbakeya,' is Cairo's century-old book market. Located just above the Attaba metro station in Cairo's Attaba neighborhood, the market`s bookstores sell books on practically every subject. From history and literature to religion, science to philosophy, Soor el Azbakeya sells books in Arabic, English, French, and German. Comics, old magazines and CDs can also be found.
According to Harby Hassan Mahassab, a seller who inherited his bookstore from his father and uncle 50 years ago, Soor el Azbakeya earned its name before the establishment of the official market in 1907. Before the turn of the century, book sellers would sit near the fence of Azbakeya and sell their books in the shade of the once-present Opera House.
Before discovering this spot, book sellers would stroll coffee shops nearby and sell their books to intellectuals sitting there, said Mahassab.
Soor el Azbakeya's low prices also set the market apart. A book sold outside for 40 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $6.70) will be sold in Soor el Azbakeya for 5 EGP (U.S. $0.85), said Mahassab. A novel by acclaimed Egyptian author Taha Hussein in Arabic can be found for 7 EGP, while an English book on the history of the Middle East can be found for 15 EGP. Bartering is also a very common practice in Soor el Azbakeya.
"We get most of our books from anyone who wishes to sell them, and so are always left with a wide and interesting variety," said 35-year-old seller Khaled Hashim.
According to Hashim, visitors are mainly students, usually belonging to the lower middle class, tourists from Europe, Asia and the Gulf and intellectuals and celebrities.
Asked what had changed over the past 50 years in the market, Mahassab said everything has changed, even the readers. He said people who visit the market now do so out of obligation of research and not out of interest.
"People who read today are very different from the people who read in past. People in the past came to the market and read everything, and did not limit themselves to the subject they were studying. Men such as Taha Hussein and Naguib Mahfouz came to be great as a result of reading. They didn't just appear out of nowhere. This is why I wish for more people to read," he said.
Mahassab said that former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, Egyptian Nobel prize winner Naguib Mahfouz and writer Anis Mansour bought their books from Soor el Azbakeya.
Soor el Azbakeya is open from 10am to 10pm every day.

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