Sunday, 25 October 2015

Madbouli Bookshop / مكتبة مدبولي

Madbuli Bookstore,
 Talaat Harb Square, in 2014.
Image: MPM, CC-BY
In the age of online bookstores (and of various pirate distributors), it has become remarkably easy to gain access to books. So easy, in fact, that one forgets how difficult it was, in Cairo in the 1990's, to lay one's hands on a particular text.

English books were either unavailable or unaffordable, and Arabic works so scattered among myriad small booksellers that it took long (though enjoyable) tours through the bookshops to find what one was looking for. I often returned home with bags full of books -- except the one title that I had set out to buy, of course!

A common problem in bookstores then (and now) was the absence of organization on the shelves: books were grouped vaguely by subject (like 'adab'), or by publisher, but not arranged alphabetically by author. To search for a specific title was either a patient solitary effort--reading spines, and getting your hands dirty--or a social transaction with the bookstore staff: you might chat a little, talk about this and that, and finally inquire if a particular title was available. With a little luck (and if you were talking to the right member of the staff), the book would be brought to you, or at least you would receive a suggestion where it could be available. In the better bookstores, the junior staff in bookstores were blissfully oblivious of the titles which were in stock, while a senior staff member would act as living catalog, with the ability to memorize the availability, and approximate location on the shelves of any of a few thousand titles.

Among the bookstores in Cairo, one in particular was rightly famous for its good selection, and expert staff: Maktabat Madbūlī on Ṭalʿat Ḥarb Square.

The store still exists, and offers a decent selection of books, but it no longer plays the pivotal role in the cultural life of Egypt like it once did. In its heyday, one must remember, it was said that the bookstore's owner, al-Ḥājj Madbūlī, was 'the minister of culture of the Arab world'. This bon mot may be somewhat of a hyperbole, but it is true that the Hajj was on friendly terms with many major authors of his day, and that he himself published many of their works in his press. Moreover, his bookstore served as Cairo's window to the world, where one could find the latest publications from Lebanon, works translated from foreign languages, and even the occasional banned book.

al-Ḥājj Madbūlī.
from the biography cited above
-- shamelessly adopted under the
Fair Use doctrine.
The bookshop and publishing house owed their success to the leadership of their legendary owner: Muḥammad Madbūlī Muḥammad Ḥusayn, generally known as "al-Ḥājj Madbūlī". Although he was arguably one of the more influential characters in the history of Arabic culture, there are very few accounts of his life available, and almost none in English. In this post, I would like to fill that lacuna, and provide a short biography. My main source is a biographical work published posthumously by the Madbūlī press itself:

Saʿīd, Ashraf (ed.). al-Ḥājj Madbūlī: Kitāb wa-takrīm. al-Qāhirah: Maktabat Madbūlī, 2010.

The book is no longer available (even at the Madbūlī bookstore itself), but I was able to obtain a copy for AUC library. It is of course a eulogistic work, but the biographical details are clear enough:

Muḥammad Madbūlī was born in Cairo in 1938. His father was a newspaper salesman from Sohag, who specialized in selling foreign newspapers in downtown Cairo. From age seven, Muḥammad helped his father distribute his papers, and therefore never received a formal education. In later years, when al-Ḥājj had already become a celebrity, he was generally thought to be illiterate (a claim which is denied in the biography), but the apparent paradox of an illiterate man running a bookstore and publishing venture worked in his favour, making the man into a legendary character.

From very modest beginnings--selling papers on the pavement opposite Groppi's--Muḥammad and his brother Ahmad worked their way up to acquire a kiosk on Ṭalʿat Ḥarb Square (in 1951), and dealt mainly in foreign newspapers, and imported books. After 1956, the brothers turned to Arabic material, but continued to work exclusively as distributors. Their business flourished, and in 1970 Maktabat Madbūlī moved into a shop on the same square, where it remains today. Shortly after the move to a permanent location, the Madbūlī brothers also began to branch out into publishing.

Nawāl al-Saʿadāwī's works 
for sale in Madbūlī's bookstore.
Image: MPM 2014, CC-BY
One of Madbūlī's early publishing projects was the series al-Masraḥ al-ʿālamī, which made the work of Sartre, Camus, Beckett, and others available to and Arabic-speaking audience. At the same time, al-Ḥājj Madbūlī cultivated relationships with established writers and intellectuals, and with emerging new talents (among other things, he apparently extended very generous credit to his regular customers). The combination of a liberal publication policy, and what one might call direct marketing clearly paid off, because Madbūlī publishers soon counted among their authors many of Egypt's most well-known literary authors, like Aḥmad Fuʾad Najm, Jamāl al-Ghīṭānī, Khayrī Shalabī, or ʻAbd al-Raḥmān al- Abnūdī, as well as prolific social scientists like Nawāl al-Saʿadāwī and Jamāl Ḥamdān.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Maktabat Madbūlī is said to have published around sixty titles annually -- a significant number. Despite the flourishing business, only one of Muḥammad Madbūlī's seven children entered their father's line of work. However, his two nephews Muḥammad and Sayyid did go into publishing, and founded al-Madbūlī al-ṣaghīr in Giza in 1987.

Muḥammad Madbūlī continued to run the bookstore and publishing house until shortly before his death on December 5th, 2008. The bookstore and publishing house are now owned and run by Maḥmūd Madbūlī, who continues to manage the business very much along the same manner as before.

However, times have changed, even in Cairo. Madbūlī now faces stiff competition as a publisher from newer, trendier publishing companies, which attract a new generation of writers. As a bookstore, Madbūlī was never a particularly cosy place to be in, and therefore loses against the cafe-cum-bookshop type establishments that are popping up here and there. Although its warehouse is well-stocked, it does not have a computerized inventory like other bookstores, which is clearly a disadvantage when one is looking for a particular title.

All in all, it seems that Madbūlī's glory days are over. And yet, because of the sheer volume of their backlist, and by virtue of their contacts, they remain a force to be reckoned with.

Madbouli Bookstore, Ṭalʿat Ḥarb Square, Downtown Cairo. (official website)
phone: 02 25752854