Thursday, 17 March 2016

Cairo International Book Fair (46th) / معرض القاهرة الدولي للكتاب (الدورة 46)

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 one, the fair offers a glimpse of some aspects of intellectual activity in the Arab world, and in Egypt in particular.

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).

This year, what caught my eye was the presence of many new and 'trendy' publishers that serve as a platform for an emerging generation of young authors. Strategically placed in a row right behind the main entrance were the stalls of al-Rabi al-Arabi, Dar Karmah, Tuya lil-Nashr, and Dar Dawwin, etc... .

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.

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

Monday, 22 December 2014

L'Orientaliste, or, for the love of books

shop sign, l'orientaliste bookstore
image: MPM. Distributed on a CC-BY license.

In my student days, a reproduction of R.B. Kitaj's painting "The Orientalist" accompanied me to my various lodgings. I admired the style of painting, which is somewhat reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints, and thought of the subject matter as an ironic commentary on my own situation as an orientalist-in-training.

As a name for a profession, the term "Orientalist" now has a negative ring to it. And yet, in some contexts, it simply evokes a memory of comfortably old-fashioned ways.

In other words, it may have been the name that first attracted me to L'Orientaliste bookstore at 15, Rue Kasr El Nile, just across from Groppi. In the course of several visits, I became acquainted with the fabulous collection of books, postcards, prints, and maps which are on offer in the store.

Among other amazing things, there are seventeenth-century travelogues, modernist Egyptian novels in French, a copy of tractate Menahot printed in Vienna, beautiful lithographs, original photographs, etc... . The current owner acquires new material very selectively, so there really is no trash on the shelves. He also knows what his collection is worth, and charges prices like in London or Paris. No, this is not a place for bargain hunters.

So who is this bibliophile who keeps an antiquarian bookstore in Cairo? Well, his name is Hassan Kamy, and his his best known as a tenor for the Cairo Opera house. He is now retired, and likes to spend time in his store, where here is happy to entertain visitors like myself. This is a paraphrase of his story, and the story of l'Orientaliste:

interior, l'orientalise bookstore
image: MPM. Distributed on a CC-BY license
The bookstore was founded in 1953 by Swiss gentleman by the name of Feldmann, who assembled stock from European owners who were relocating from Egypt at the time. It was not long before Feldmann himself was to emigrate: Being of Jewish faith, he found himself compelled to leave Egypt in 1956. In a scenario that was repeated many times all over Egypt, he issued a power of attorney over his possessions to his Egyptian assistant, Monsieur Bahari, who continued to administer the bookshop.

At one point, M. Bahari felt that he had paid up --so M. Kamy puts it-- and took full ownership of the store. Not that he was eager to make huge profits: according to M. Kamy, the new owner was not keen to part with his stock, had exaggerated prices, and granted meagre discounts even for his most faithful customers, such as Hasan Kamy himself.

So it happened that much of the stock remained untouched for decades until the late eighties, when M. Bahari's health declined. He was reportedly offered a handsome sum for the shop alone. Faced with the prospect of seeing his collection of books scattered, M. Bahari turned to Hassan Kamy instead, offering him the purchase under favourable terms, but under the condition that the bookshop would continue to exist.

Now M. Kamy is not only a cultured man, but was also affluent enough to make the purchase. Since he was kept busy by his other ventures (among other things, a travel agency!), he instituted his wife, Mme Nagwa, as the manager of the bookstore. Despite her initial objections, the bookstore became the labour of her love: she reclassified, organized, inventoried and catalogued the entire stock, which is now searchable online. She was obviously quite gifted, because the bookstore owes its current organization to Mme Nagwa.

The story could end here, but it goes on, with a sad twist: Three or four years ago, Mme Nagwa fell ill, and passed away. Her portrait hangs above the chair where M. Kamy now sits, and tells her story, his story, and that of their bookstore. His voice trembles slightly as he evokes her. It is clear that this bookshop is not only a commercial enterprise, but  also a memorial.

I listen, and begin to imagine what will be next... .

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

A virtually unknown Palestinian BD / سلسلة شبه مجهولة من القصص المصورة القلسطينية

As I was browsing the shelves of my favourite second-hand bookseller in Maadi (more about them in another post), I stumbled across a series of Palestinian BD's, entitled al-Rumāh al-ṣighār / الرماة الصغار ('The Little Slingshooters').

These works are of considerable interest, not only because of their sophisticated presentation, but also because they represent a conscious attempt to promote the work of Arab comic-book authors -- and to use this artistic medium to narrate the Paestinian Intifadah to a younger audience.

The editorial statement, reproduced on the back cover of each of the volumes, reviews the state of BD publishing in the Arab world:
"Despite an increase in the Arab production of comic strips, foreign products published in Arabic remain dominant. The heroes of foreign stories, such as Grendizer, Superman, Dan Cooper, and Tin Tin, are still the ones best known by young Arab readers." 

In order to redress the balance, the editors propose this series of graphic stories, all on the theme of the first Intifadah. It seems that their attempt to reach a wide audience was not hugely successful, considering the fact that there are exceedingly few references to the series, and no holdings in any major university library (the sole exception being Kuweit University Library; the Library of Congress appear to have one volume floating about). In other words, the series remains virtually unknown.

Now there is a series record in WorldCat, derived from the Arab Union Catalogue entry linked above. There number of volumes given is five, and indeed each volume has a list of five titles on the back of each end-paper. For the record, I provide a list with full citations for each volume below.

At the time of publication, the publisher had offices in Limassol, London, and Cairo. In Egypt, the works were distributed by Sīnā lil-Nashr (18, Sh. Ḍarīḥ Sāʿd, Cairo. Tel. 3547178). A note on the front fly-leaf states that the volumes were published in cooperation with "Dāʾirat al-Thaqāfah, Munaẓẓamat al-Taḥrīr al-Filasṭīnīyah". The series editor is given as Muḥyī al-Dīn al-Labbād (Bio | Video)! I seriously doubt that one can obtain the volumes from any of these sources; should you be interested in seeing them, please contact me, and we can try and work out a solution.

ملواح, سيد علي. المطاردة. صورة الغلاف
Malwāḥ, Sayyid ʿAlī. al-Muṭāradah. al-Rumāh al-ṣighār, 1. Limassol: al-Ṣaqr al-ʿArabī lil-Ibdāʿ, 1991.

ملواح, سيد علي. المطاردةالرماة الصغار, 1.ليماسول: الصقر العربي للإبداع, 1991.
The first three volumes in the series are more artistic in nature, and serious in content. Funky colours only appear on the title page, while the content is all black and white - in every sense. The story lines all revolve around Palestinian youths who outsmart bloodthirsty Israeli soldiers.

سلمان, عمار. خريطة من ذهب. صورة الغلاف
Salmān, ʿAmmār. Kharīṭah min dhahab. al-Rumāh al-ṣighār, 2. Limassol: al-Ṣaqr al-ʿArabī lil-Ibdāʿ, 1991.
سلمان, عمار. خريطة من ذهبالرماة الصغار, 2.ليماسول: الصقر العربي للإبداع, 1991.

مزاري, محمد. العرض مستمر. صورة الغلاف
Mazārī , Muḥammad. al-ʿArḍ mustamirr. al-Rumāh al-ṣighār, 3. Limassol: al-Ṣaqr al-ʿArabī lil-Ibdāʿ, 1991.
مزاري, محمد. العرض مستمرالرماة الصغار, 3. ليماسول: الصقر العربي للإبداع, 1991.

Volume three in the series is my favourite as far as the artwork is concerned. The narration is not text based, but draws on evocative images, and cleverly chosen transitions. For example, the narrative begins as the pattern on a Palestinian headdress transforms into the grooves on a grenade hanging from the the belt of an Israeli soldier.

محفوظ, حيدر. الآلة الجهنمية. صورة الغلاف
Maḥfūẓ, Ḥaydar. al-Ālah al-juhannamīyah. al-Rumāh al-ṣighār, 4. Limassol: al-Ṣaqr al-ʿArabī lil-Ibdāʿ, 1991.
محفوظ, حيدر. الآلة الجهنميةالرماة الصغار, 4. ليماسول: الصقر العربي للإبداع, 1991.

اللباد, محيي الدين. 30 سؤالاً. صورة الغلاف
al-Labbād,  Muḥyī al-Dīn. 30 Suʾālan. al-Rumāh al-ṣighār, 5. Limassol: al-Ṣaqr al-ʿArabī lil-Ibdāʿ, 1991.

اللباد, محيي الدين. 30 سؤالاًالرماة الصغار, 5. ليماسول: الصقر العربي للإبداع, 1991.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Leila Books / مكتبة ليلى

Leila Books is a secret. It has no shopfront, and indeed no shop in the traditional sense. There is no indication of its presence anywhere in Qasr al-Nil street, or even in the entrance of the building that also houses the Embassy of the Central African Republic. The only outward sign of its existence is the brass plaque pictured above, a little larger than a sheet of A4.

And yet, despite its inconspicuous exterior, Leila Books is arguably the most important academic book dealer in Egypt (ما شاء الله! - وحصوة ملح في عين الحسود), and Egypt's largest exporter of Arabic books to University Libraries in Europe and North America. Indeed, Leila Books is one of only two companies in the Middle East which specialize exclusively in sales to western academic libraries (the other one being Suleiman's Bookstore in Beirut). In case you were wondering, no, they don't really accept private customers, ... unless you were planning to build a substantial private library, of course.

Leila Books didn't start out as an export-oriented business, however. On the contrary, when the business was founded in 1960, by the aunt of the present owner, it was specialized in importing foreign-language university textbooks, mainly in the sciences. Some years later, the Egyptian government imposed restrictions on the transfer of hard currency abroad. Unable to wire payment for its imports, Leila Books offered to exchange Arabic books as a payment in kind. This turned out to be a success, and became their new line of business.

Eventually, Leila Books' reputation as academic bookseller and subscription agent grew, and they acquired several national libraries, and large university libraries as clients. They cooperate closely with the Library of Congress, act as agent for the IFAO, and have customers as far away as Japan. They operate several large approval plans, fill periodical subscriptions, and handle what must be a formidable number of firm orders (if I can extrapolate from my own dealings with them).

By standards of the book trade, Leila Books is a large operation. All the processes of this little Amazon are crammed into two small apartments on the second floor of their building. What strikes the visitor to their premises is the silence that reigns these offices, even early in the morning, as Leila Books' staff go about their routine tasks. One gets the impression that this is a military operation, not an ordinary office, that runs like a well-oiled clockwork. The company employs cataloguers, acquisitions specialists, procurers (who scour the market for new publications), packers, and even someone who carries out the mind-numbing task of checking each book for misprinted or blank pages.

Now who is behind all of this? Well, the mastermind of this secret operation is ...

... er, no, it's George Fawzi, proprietor and manager of Leila books. He travels widely to promote his business and services, and attendees at MELA, MESA, MELCOM and other regular conferences have the opportunity to meet him in person. He is not what one would describe as a 'bookish' person, the type of angelic, grandfatherly, and charmingly incoherent antiquarian bookseller that one sees in films -- far from it: George is a businessman with an acute sense of opportunity, and great organizational talent. He can also be a very charming interlocutor over lunch at one of the nearby haunts like the Riche, or the Estoril.

I guess the secret of Leila Books is out (I hope you don't mind, George) ... and I have to get back to reviewing the new title lists which I receive from them. Stimulating the Egyptian economy ....

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Public Image Project @ Cairo

Street art in Maadi, Cairo.
One of my images.
Can you share a better one?

Join PIP @ Cairo!

This post is not related to books, but to artistic creation in the wider sense. To be precise: photography, and how to share it.

I was looking for decent images of Cairo to use in my work. Though there are plenty of images from Cairo --and many of them better than anything I'll ever produce-- very few are marked for reuse with a Creative Commons license.

Whereas in Egypt nobody worries about copyright, users in Europe and the US generally do, so the absence of publicly-licensed content is a problem. It means that the images that private individuals, such as students, scholars, bloggers, etc... can use safely are few in number, and limited to a few commonly-photographed motifs.

So ... I went ahead and created a Flickr group to share my own images, to set a precedent, and to encourage others to do the same. In fact, some of the pictures are my son's, but he has kindly granted me permission to use them on the group. Generosity runs in families, you see!

If you have some decent images of Cairo on Flickr, please contribute. If not, consider signing up for Flickr, and contribute. With a little effort, we can show the world that there is more to Cairo than Tahrir square.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Adam Bookshop / مكتبة آدم

I found the Adam Bookshop by chance, as I was shopping for shoes for my daughter. There is certainly very little to advertise its presence in Maadi Grand Mall (see Location map), and even a casual visitor to the mall may not notice the store on the LOWER LEVEL, next to the cafeteria.

Despite its relatively remote location, the store is appears to be well-known, and well-frequented -- particularly by families who send their children to one of the German schools here in Cairo ... because they carry a huge selection of German titles, including school textbooks in all subjects (incl. Maths -- the exercise books may be useful for speakers of other languages, too).

Indeed, I read on their website that the store is the official distributor for Langenscheidt and Duden Verlag titles (the familiar sight of their yellow spines brings back memories of school days -- where are the Reclamheftchen?). They also seem to organize regular book bazaars at the DEO, and regular community events for children.

So what do they stock? They have everything you will ever need to learn (or teach) German, in addition to a large selection of children's books in German and English, with some French. There is also a very decent choice of literature in German and English (and a few shelves of French -- you'd better go to Livres de France around the corner for those. More on LdF later.), including both bestsellers and literary classics. They stock a huge number of translations from Arabic into German, and into English. The German-language community magazine Papyrus is available here, as are Egyptian- and art-themed calendars, notebooks, postcards, maps, guidebooks, etc... . I do like their gift items, and this may be a good place to look for something to send back home.

In a nutshell, don't be fooled by the word "bookshop", and their website in English -- this is in fact a real, well-stocked Buchladen. The reason would be that the owner, Mr. Radwan, spent many years living in Germany, and founded the store upon his return to Egypt in 2003. As noted above, the store does seem to fill a gap by meeting the needs of German-speaking famillies in Cairo; I wish they could also keep a registry of certified German teachers in the Maadi area. I have been looking for one, but found that even the Goethe Institute can't help.

Final verdict: well worth a visit, even if you're not a Germanophile.