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'The renaissance has ended, only the police remain' - Al Akhbar review of 41st Cairo Book Fair in English

Read the original in Al Akhbar here. Translated into English by Asma.

"The Cairo International Book Fair" didn’t retain anything of the golden age except some superlatives. While waiting for a real revival of the cultural institution to happen, and for what it needs of diverse intellectual and political conditions to take place, the 41st edition of the book fair witnessed some changes that deserve some reflection: Political and intellectual works have declined, leaving more space for various trends and generations of literary works.

Mohammed Khir

Pages of thousands of novels in the “Cairo International Book Fair” - even in fictional novels and detective stories – didn’t manage to describe such a scene: Happy children in a sunny winter morning, race their parents to colorful gates, but soon run into lines of policemen. Those military officials block entrances with their severe faces as in the days of riots, while other security men in civilian clothing carefully and extra diligently inspect entering people. What is going on? Did we come to a book fair or to a military barrack? Parents will certainly be unable to explain this to their kids: They brought the children to the book fair for their relationship with reading to start, but their relationship started with the… police!

It is unfair to not consider the positive aspects of the 41st occasion of the famous book fair, which has nothing of its golden age but superlatives (the oldest, the biggest), while it plummeted in organization and management. In the current edition, things are a little bit different: vendors are not allowed in, restaurants that used to be at the heart of the showrooms were canceled, corridors between wings were expanded, and loudspeakers were banned. For the first time in a long while, the book fair rooms looked more quiet, clean and organized. But the problem is that all this coincided with the tightening of security measures, and the elimination of the “cultural café”, which bestowed on the innovations a police shadow, just like the government tends to pave streets in slums, in order to make it possible for police cars to break through!

In any case, the current fair, which has been extended to the 8th of next month, will be the last to have the current image of the book fair. The next rendezvous will be in the big conference room adjacent to the exhibition. Assuming that the demolition of the facilities on the exhibitions ground will resume, and they will be rebuilt in a new way, so that the book fair will be back to its location by the 43rd gathering. Will this event regain its vitality regardless of the buildings renovation? It doesn’t seem so, as the situation of the exhibition is like the situation of the cultural and major media institutions in Egypt: the post July state dominated them according to a renaissance project, but the project disappeared and only the power remained.

But the most important difference has nothing to do with the management, but with the market: gradually, the nature of headlines changed ... and the nature of buyers changed, apart from the religious books market that maintained its “prosperity”. The most prominent change affected pioneer libraries that were known for politic and intellectual books, and whose majority is heading to literary works. And while a big publisher like “Al-shorooq” became more interested in novels, the most interesting thing is the size for which those novels account in the publicity of the publisher for itself and its books. New publishers also focus on literary works, to the extent that it seems to visitors that the era during which readers go to the book fair to explore new titles in political and intellectual works is over. The forefront of the exhibition’s books is no more for books by Haikal, Nasr Abu Zid, or Farag Fouda… against books by Al-Ghazali and Al-Shaarawi. Now there are crowds for the novels of Alaa Al-Aswani, Khayri Shalabi, Bahaa Taher, and young writers such as Hamed Abdelssamad, Tareq Imam, and Hamdi Abu Jalil… and others, whose works witness an unprecedented demand.

In light of a new reality that witnesses how political books are affected by the domination of satellite channels that catch analysis instantly, in a way typing machines fail to keep up with…When can writers analyse deeply, to write, print and sell? Literature alone retains freshness regardless of time. A novel will never be spoiled, no matter how long it will wait for you, or you wait for it. In light of such a changing reality, political and intellectual books found the solution in tending to recent and modern history. For example, Madbooly library presented the book “concise encyclopaedia of ancient Egypt'”, by Abdelmoneim Al-Hanafy, and it printed “veil of mind” by Nawal Al-Saadawi…

It seems that those who predicted the “death of poetry” will have to wait a long time. Egyptian publishers are back with a number of poems publications. One of the important ones is “the poet and the Sheikh”, by Helmi Salem, inspired by his experience of judicial conflict with Sheikh Youssef Al-Badri. The book was released by “Dar Afaaq”, which printed “I am the witness of your grave” by Fatima Qandil, and “divided by zero” by Lina Al-Taibi. Helmi Salem is not the only one from the 70s, as Dar Afaa also presented “the publishing house” by Mohamed Afifi Matar, “Malakoot Abdelelah”, for Hasan Talab “a sacrifice to the God of war”, “selections” by Qasem Haddad, and “my name is not difficult” by Fatima Naot. “Merit” steps one decade back, bringing from the 60s Sayyid Hejab with a poetry work including poems about Palestine and Gaza, and it republished full works of Ahmed Fouad Nagm, and presented young poets which are Yasser Abdellatif (night tour), and Ahmed Yamani (wrong places)… As for “Malameh”, it published Adel Salama’s poems, “left click”.

In spite of the unequivocal domination of novels, there was a lack of “new” titles, meaning those that were issued mainly right before the book fair, or during it. That could lead to the conclusion that the popularity of novels lasts throughout the year, while poems, stories and others need a guaranteed public provided by the exhibition. One of the most prominent novelist names participating in a new work is Sunaallah Ibrahim, with his book “French law' (by the Arab Future publishing house). Novelist Sayyed Al-Wakil presented his short story “Bisada street“, on which cover he called it “novella” ... in a first “official” recognition from an author for that literary form / volume that was about to dominate the Egyptian novel market.