The annual Cairo International Book Fair came to a close last Thursday after a three-day extension-on-demand called for by publishers and book lovers. The event, which this year marked its 40th anniversary, drew unusually large crowds from dawn to dusk despite the cold and rainy weather. Taking part were 743 publishers: 522 of them from Egypt, 178 from the Arab World, and 43 international publishing houses, with the United Arab Emirates representatives as this year’s guests of honour. The fair, which started out 40 years ago on only 3,000-sq.m., is now held in an area twice that size. As well as books, numerous seminars were organised, and several artistic events and exhibitions were held.
Just for fun
Among the most notable seminars this year was one held to commemorate the first modern Arabic novel, Efrinji ma yseer (Never a Foreigner) by Lebanese writer Khairi Khouri in the early 19th century. It was unfortunate that, despite its being conducted by Habib al-Sayegh, Hatem Qabil, and Nasser al-Zahiri, the seminar was poorly attended, with only seven people there. In all, several seminars were cancelled owing to the poor turnout, which was very disappointing. Watani talked to some of the few who attended.
Samir Atwa, a photographer for the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), commented that the average visitor went to the fair for fun and for entertainment with family and friends. If a child insisted on buying an eye-catching book his or her parents would concede, but the majority did not buy books—apart from religious books, of course—or take the seminars seriously. Seminar attendees are thus reduced only to the journalists covering such events.
Ignorant means uninterested
According to al-Sayed al-Khatry, who works for a satellite TV channel, most seminars did not tackle topics of interest that might attract young people. Added to insufficient publicity, even those who might be interested could easily miss out. Even a seminar on drug abuse that could have attracted young people was cancelled. Mr Khatry suggests that the agendas of the seminars should be announced on TV to make the public aware of the topics beforehand.
Hanan Muhammad, a law student, believes that the manner in which the seminars were conducted was poor and lacked positive interaction. She pointed out that the books that were discussed had been read only by the people leading the seminars, and the ordinary readers knew nothing about the contents and therefore could not be bothered to attend.
Is romance dead?
The only event to see a significant number of visitors was the Okaz Poetry Forum; the name is taken from that of a time honoured poetry forum in the Arabian Peninsula in pre-Islamic times, when culture was mostly transmitted orally and poetry was held in extremely high regard. The Book Fair’s Okaz is dedicated to the works of amateur poets and is a very lively affair. Most poets, however, presented or recited works that dealt with political issues; many were anti-American. Ismail Abdel-Alim, one of the current Okaz organisers, said that the reason the forum was so well-frequented was that it was open to all sorts of people and, more important, that there was no censorship of any kind. This transparency and freedom of expression attracted visitors, he pointed out.
But is the age of romance dead? Watani asked, Are there no love poems any more? Mr Abdel-Alim said it appears that it is no longer the time for sentiment, rather that painful reality imposes itself and poets now depict people’s suffering, especially in Iraq and Palestine.
What was good about the fair this year was the absence of any disputes between Christian and Muslim publishing houses, which were, as usual, situated side by side in the same hall. Another positive item was the absence of malignant anti-Christian posters advertising books defaming Christianity and the Church, which last year were everywhere.
Released; no explanation given
On Wednesday 30 January, publishers at the 40th Cairo International Book Fair said the authorities had allowed them to sell a number of Western and secular books that had been banned only two days earlier.
“We have received all our books that were confiscated,” Nabil Nofal of the Lebanese publishing house Dar al-Adab said: These included four works by the Czech author Milan Kundera. Germany’s al-Jamal publishers said the authorities had returned copies of Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri’s “For Bread Alone”, which contains references to teenage sex and drug use and is banned in several Arab countries. Other publishers also said their books had been released from customs at Cairo airport. The taboo-busting “Love in Saudi Arabia” by young novelist Ibrahim Badi was also banned, along with “Women of Sand and Myrrh” by Lebanon’s Hanan al-Sheikh. The story deals with the position of women in the Gulf and mentions homosexuality.
Elias Khoury, a renowned Lebanese writer who describes himself as an atheist, secular and left-wing, had his “As If She Were Sleeping” seized.
As with the earlier seizure of the books, no explanation was given as to why the authorities allowed the books to be put on display. The Cairo Book Fair, the Arab world’s largest, has been notorious over the past few years for being dominated by Islamist works and influence.
There was some criticism of the selection of the UAE as this year’s guest of honour, with claims that there were economic rather than cultural motives behind the choice. Contrary to the wealth of cultural activities offered by Germany and Italy when they were selected as guests of honour in the last two years, the UAE offered almost none this year. Nevertheless the Emirates’ plastic art display was spectacular, although it lacked publicity; no brochure or explanation of the works were on hand, and no artists were present.