In Cairo, the bibliophile's year begins at the end of January, when the annual Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) opens. This year's fair is the 46th, and the event is (yes, still) one of the major events on the cultural calendar of the Arab world's most populous capital.
Like in previous years, the fair has brought hundreds of publishers to Cairo, offering millions of books, and has attracted hundreds of thousands of visitors... but frankly, this is not the place to revisit official statistics. Instead, let me attempt to describe what kind of animal this fair really is--because CIBF is different.
|A pavillion at CIBF, 2016. |
Photo: MPM. License: CC-BY
To begin with, the fair rises above its competitors (i.e. other Arabic-language book fairs) because of sheer size. That in itself is hardly surprising, given that Egypt is the single largest market for any type of product in the Middle East.
For very much the same reason, the CIBF also stands apart from other book fairs worldwide (like the Frankfurt Book Fair), in that it is not a trade fair in a narrower sense. Whereas the Frankfurt Book Fair and its peers are mainly a forum to connect the various players in the industry (authors, agents, publishers) and to showcase the latest developments, the Cairo Book Fair is really a consumer fair. In Cairo, publishers from all over the Arab world have the opportunity to sell their publications to Egyptian readers -- and to stock up on publications from other publishers to sell back home.
In other words, the fair functions as a huge, open trading platform for publishers, distributors, and individuals alike. Imagine an Amazon warehouse, made open to the public; though instead of conveyor belts and robots, a legion of porters shuttles between the halls and tents, moving boxes full of books.
This may also explain why the Cairo Book Fair is somewhat ... well, adventurous--and certainly not a place for the faint-hearted: the grounds are huge and sprawling, most stalls are crammed with books in no apparent order, most areas are extremely crowded, and there are no maps to locate particular publishers, etc... . To try to locate a particular title in this deluge of books is both an exercise in futility, or at best a social activity. as the visitor has to rely on the suggestions of random passers-by.
So the Cairo Book Fair is not made for show, nor is it easy to navigate. That does not mean that a visit cannot be extremely rewarding, or enlightening.
|Arabic Bible commentary: One of many at the fair|
Photo: MPM. License: CC-BY
For example, I was intrigued to find last year that a good number of Christian publishing houses were present at the fair. In the subject area of Bible commentaries, they offered an interesting mixture of translated works, and locally authored ones, which may reflect the influence of Coptic expats in the US and Europe. Given that Christian bookstores are usually tucked away on church grounds, and typically only offer a small selection of materials, it was revealing to see the various players in this particular branch of publishing at the fair, and to appreciate the full range of Christian material that is being published. As a Librarian, I see far too little of this on booksellers' lists, or on library shelves. (As an aside, I take it as a good omen for Egypt that cheerful group of girls with headscarves were browsing the shelves of the Bible Society. No inter-communal tension here, just mild curiosity).
Some of their publications are of course widely available (at Diwan or Alif bookstores, for instance, but also at the train station, and in Carrefour Supermarkets (!)), but it was impressive to see them represented en bloc, and even more impressive to see the throngs of people browsing and buying their publications. It seems clear that younger readers are enthusiastically embracing new writing, much of which appears to be in colloquial Egyptian Arabic.
Another feature of the fair that makes it unique is the presence of second-hand booksellers. These are mostly the same dealers who have stalls near the Ataba Metro stop, but on this occasion, they bring out the contents of their warehouses. They offer mostly paperbacks, textbooks, and old magazines, though one can find the occasional treasure.
That said, most of the visitors who come to the second-hand tent are not looking for treasure, but for books they can afford, because the prices for new books have risen considerably in recent years. Imported titles from Lebanon and the Gulf are particularly expensive, because they are originally priced in Dollars. Even for the well-to-do, a single volume for LE300 does not seem cheap. It is no wonder, then, that the second-hand booksellers' section is crowded with customers.
In other parts of the fair, it is interesting to observe that readers flock to particular publishing houses. Among them are of course the large pavillions of well-known players, like Madbuli, al-Shuruq, and Dar al-Salam--though it did seem that Madbuli was a little less crowded than in previous years, which may indicate they have lost some of their appeal (and market share?).
Of the established publishers, the one that appeared to draw the largest crowd was Nahdat Misr: this may have to do with the attractive presentation of their pavilion (complete with and e-book vending booth, and clowns on stilts at the entrance).
My one grievance against CIBF is that its presence is taken for granted--to the extent that the organizers do not deem it necessary to provide any up-to-date information on the official website (but information about the past fair remains accessible throughout the year). One does wonder how the exhibitors cope, but they do ... and I am sure they are preparing for next year's fair already.