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.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Egyptian Anglophone Literature / الأدب المصري المؤلف باللغة الإنكليزية

Many readers of this page will be familiar with the Francophone literature of the Maghreb. More nuanced literary critics than myself may want to challenge the perception of this body of literature as a distinct category, but I get the impression that la littérature maghrébine d'expression française (109K+ results fro this string in Google) is generally seen as an established body of writing, with its own canon, and pantheon. 

Despite Egypt's insistence that the country belongs to the group of francophone countries, there are relatively few francophone Egyptian writes of note -- Robert Solé may be the most familiar name to readers in Europe, and though one may quarrel about his status as "Egyptian", let's count him as ibn al-balad ... sharafan. It may be true that French was the language of the educated upper classes in Egypt for most of the twentieth century, and that the ability to speak French is still often associated with an aristocratic upbringing. 

However, one can feel that the use of French in the Egyptian public sphere has decreased to the point of disappearance. A little over a decade ago in Alexandria and Cairo, it was possible to shop and order one's meals only in French, and many of the older shops retained their signs (or menus) in that language. Over the years, many shop assistants and waiters have retired or died, and old shops closed down altogether. Yes, there are still large French schools, but French in Egypt, it would seem, has become a foreign language.

The demise of French has been paralleled by a rise in the use of English. A particularly comic example is the Egyptian restaurant chain COOK DOOR -- a bowdlerization of "Coq d'Or", of course. But seriously: Egypt in the past decade has experienced the decay of the government education system, and an explosion in the number of private schools -- most of which appear to be مدارس لغات  ('language schools'), i.e. schools in which part of the curriculum is taught in English. In the public sphere, shop signs are increasingly set in English only, English is understood in all but the most popular markets, and even the Arabic vocabulary of daily live has been heavily influenced by the language (what's the Arabic word for 'shoes'?). 

I am not an expert in education, nor a linguist, so my notes are largely impressionistic. There is ample material, though, for several PhD theses in those fields, and I'd be curious to see detailed studies on the impact of English in Egypt.

This was a lengthy introduction to lead up to my main point: that there is now a relatively large number of young and educated Egyptians who use English daily with native or near-native competency. Setting aside the many (and often short-lived) English-language periodicals that publish miscellaneous articles, is an Anglophone Literature of Egypt anywhere in sight? Well, it seems that there is. 

Rowayat icon

Susan Muaddi Darraj has written a brief overview of Arab Anglophone writing that is useful as an introduction. There is also Syrine Hout's book-length study of Anglophone fiction from Lebanon that came out last year:

Hout, Syrine. Post-war Anglophone Lebanese Fiction: Home Matters in the Diaspora. Edinburgh University Press, 2012.

Then, there are local efforts here in Egypt to promote Anglophone writings by Egyptian authors. One of these is Rowayat, an online journal-cum-informational site. Depending on your perspective, subtitle can be read as sinister or promising (as in, a butterfly emerging from the chrysalis), but I feel that it describes the situation accurately. There is certainly no sudden explosion of Anglophone writing here, more a gradual emergence.  The Rowayat site is well-structured, and contains some interesting material, but has been described and reviewed in detail elsewhere. More to the point, I had an exchange of emails with Sherine Elbanhawy, the magazine's founder and manager. I asked her about her own background, and how she came to write in English:

"I am quadrilingual - Arabic, English, French and Spanish - Spanish is my weakest because I don't practice as much... .My education has been in English from the 10thgrade in high school, prior to that it was French. I read the most in English and I dream in English, so when I sit to write, that is the language I am most comfortable with. I believe English is my strongest language too."

But how about Arabic?

"I am very much an Egyptian, and proud to be, and love reading in Arabic as well, but Taha Hussein is for example too hard, and I indulge into the translation."

As an Arabist and someone who tries to study Arabic literature in the original language, I find these perceptions intriguing, and wonder how I would relate to my 'national' literature, if I preferred to read Goethe in English. I confess that I often cannot remember if I read a Latin American novel in German or English translation, but just retain a distinct impression of the work, like that of a smell. I'll leave the translation theorists to debate the topic, but I do think that Anglophone writing in Egypt (and the Middle East as a whole) will grow into a significant phenomenon. If you want to know more, follow Sherine.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

... and more BD: Toktok! المزيد عن القصص المصورة: توك توك

TokTok #3 Front cover
In the last post, I already referred to TokTok, the more lighthearted (but by no means trivial) predecessor and pioneer in Egyptian BD magazines. If I add a separate post here devoted to that title, it is not because my conscience demands fair treatment, but because I had an opportunity to encounter, see and hear part of the editorial team last week. Meet the full team:

The TokTok editorial team (RTL): Makhlūf, Shinnāwī, Tawfīq, Hishām Raḥmah, ʿAbd Allāh, ʾAndīl
Dina Heshmat of the Arabic department had kindly taken the initiative to invite them for one of their informal lunchtime gatherings. Shinnāwī, Hishām Raḥmah, and ʾAndīl presented samples of their work, talked about their experience, and engaged with the questions from the crowd.

For the historical record: all three have a background in arts, and have 'real' jobs as illustrators/ caricaturists with Egyptian newspapers. The magazine began as an amateur (with a capital 'A', and a French accent) experiment before the 2011 revolution: the project of the magazine was first offered to two (unnamed) publishers, both of which refused, for various reasons, leading the group to publish themselves. Despite a lack of a formal distribution network (apparently, one has to publish an edition of at least 5000 copies to distribute via existing distributors; TokTok currently has an edition of 1000 copies), the magazine was a success, and has developed a relatively small, but faithful following -- students of the Fine Arts department, to begin with, but now it attracts readers from all walks of life.

TokTok #3 Page 1 and impressum
It helps that the content is humorous, that the stories are well scripted and visually appealing, and that the narratives often grow out of the illustrations -- indeed, there are several examples of narratives that rely on graphics alone, and do without text. Oh, and the text is mostly in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, so it has an 'authentic' flair about it, right down to the use of slang.

Here we come to the part that didn't appeal to the publishers: The magazine has warning on its cover: يحفظ بعيدا عن متناول الاطفال - Keep out of reach of children ... maybe because some of its content is graphic (as in 'explicit'), or because the texts contain sexual innuendo (or WORSE. Shush.). I read that the makers of Metro had themselves arrested and fined for infringing public decency, so this is not a trivial issue for publishers and artists alike.

It was interesting to hear ʾAndīl about the group's experience in offering the content to publishers. Because the concept is relatively new to the Egyptian market, publishers were reportedly not able to categorize the concept, or appreciate it fully. The artist also pointed out that the rough draft is less appealing that the finished product, and therefore tougher to sell. Responding to questions about alleged 'indecency' , the makers of TokTok pointed out that many recent novels contain language that is far more explicit than their magazine, and yet pass the censor without delay.

I am still trying to find out how one can buy an entire set of the magazine, and when I do, I'll add a note here that leads to the source. Enjoy.

Monday, 11 November 2013

Ta7weela / التحويلة

al-Tahwilah 1 (2013), front coveral-Tahwilah 1 (2013), back cover

At the Kotob Khan, I found copies of Ta7weela, a new Arabic comic magazine that came out with its first issue earlier this summer. For the bibliographically-minded, here is the citation:

al-Taḥwīlah: Qiṣaṣ muṣawwarah bi-al-ʿArabīyah lil-Kibār. Cairo, Beirut: The Comic Shop – Publishers.  al-ʿAdad 1 (Māyū/ Yūnyuh 2013) -- .
التحويلة: قصص مصورة بالعربية للكبار. القاهرة, بيروت: The Comic Shop – Publishers . العدد 1 (مايو\ يونيه 2013) --

The subtitle is essentially the editorial programme: Ta7weela publishes stories (in the broadest sense), in Arabic (dto.), for grown-ups. I say 'stories in the broadest sense', because some pieces in the volume--like the one about garbage-collectors--are not really narratives, but graphic documentaries, if you will. 

The idea of a magazine for grownups is not new, of course. In Egypt, there is TokTok magazine, which has been around since 2009, and there may well be other, similar ventures in the Maghrib (if you are aware of any, please point them out to me in your comments below). What distinguishes the two is that TokTok is a standalone venture, that  it has a certain amateurish charm to some (but not all) of its artwork, that its narratives are shorter, and that it is essentially humouristic. Ta7weela, on the other hand, is part of an array of publishing products that include acclaimed titles such as Metro by Magdy Elshafi (2012); that the artwork is professional throughout; and that it is far more serious in tone (think MAD vs. Persepolis). 

Since we are talking about Persepolis: the striking cover image is taken from a piece about Iran, albeit a translated one. Indeed, much of the content in Ta7weela appears to have been published previously in other languages. Here are some samples of the content:

So the artwork is professional (as in, consistently well-produced), but does it add to the narrative experience? This is where the content of Ta7weela is somewhat uneven: in some pieces, the illustrations are rather bland, and add no visual appeal. A few pieces, however, make good use of the medium by providing imagery that enhances the narrative.

The final verdict: Noteworthy. One single issue is hardly enough to allow me to talk about a new trend, about a groundswell of interest in graphic novels; indeed, compared to the Francophone world where we have an entire industry devoted to la BD, including museums and libraries with tens of thousands of titles, the local production is negligible. Then again, the genre is new enough to Egypt to be of interest, and it is certainly a positive sign to see graphic novels prominently displayed in bookstores around Cairo. Will they catch on? I can't say, but I'll be watching out for the Comic Shops next publications ...

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Al Kotob Khan Book Shop

Image by MPM (CC-BY)
Al Kotob Khan Book Shop
مكتبة الكتب خان


Let's begin this tour of Cairo bookshops close to home -- just across the street from our place, in fact.

Al Kotob Khan Book Shop can be found at 13, Road 254 in Maadi (nearby landmarks are Cairo American College and the Shell supermarket). They have a well-designed website and (wonder of wonders) a searchable inventory online.

I suppose one could call this a concept-bookstore-cum cafeteria. Indeed, they offer a decent selection of (modern) Arabic literature, English books (literary classics, some bestsellers, Art books, translations), in addition to a little German (Reclamheftchen!) and French. They also have CDs, DVDs, handcrafted stationary, local handicraft (kites, book bags), and a very pretty children's section with books in Arabic, English, German and French.

In some ways, Al Kotob Khan is similar to al-Diwan. What distinguishes the two is that the latter has turned into franchise, whereas Al Kotob Khan retains the atmosphere of a family business. One certainly does get the impression that the owner, Mrs. Karam Youssef, and her staff are very engaged in running the store, and eager to make it inviting and special.

The store itself is certainly inviting. Though quite well-attended, Al Kotob Khan is never crowded, or noisy, but feels like a place where one likes to read before buying. The tables are small, but have a view of a calm side street and lush green gardens. As far as I know, there is no other place nearby where one can sit quite so pleasantly -- just what one needs after a hellish commute on the ring road.

Now what makes Al Kotob Khan special? First, the selection of books available: In addition to bestselling and classic titles in Arabic in Literature, they offer a good selection of translations into English. What is find far more interesting is that Al Kotob Khan staff make an effort to promote niche publications, such as graphic novels in Arabic, or CDs of experimental music released on the 100 Copies label.

The store hosts cultural events (poetry readings and the like) from time to time, and serves as a space for exhibits of original artwork. Particularly noteworthy: the book display / فرشة كتب, a regular event to share gently used and new books at reasonable prices.

Oh, and Al Kotob Khan is a publisher. Among other titles, they published: Muḥammad Rabiʿ. ʿĀm al-tinnin. Al-Qāhirah: al-Kutub Khan, 2012. The novel was chosen as winner of the Sawiris Foundation prize for young novelists in 2011. Just so you know.

There is something reassuring about having a bookshop in the neighbourhood, and I am particularly glad that my local bookshop is such an interesting one. I am confident that  Al Kotob Khan will continue to make its mark, despite the competition elsewhere in Maadi.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

In the beginning ... في البداية

Image by Hossam all line (@Flickr); distributed on a CC-BY-NC-SA license.

... some words about this blog:

It is not intended to be a systematic review of books (although I hope to write regularly about new, and noteworthy publications from/ about Egypt).

It's not meant to be a guide to bookstores in Egypt (but will include my personal reflections on bookstores that I know, and could therefore morph into something that can be used as a guide - albeit a very ideosyncratic one).

Finally, it's not a biographical dictionary (even though I would like to write about the people who have devoted their lives to producing, selling, and preserving books in Egypt). 

So ... what I want to do is plant a seed that will grow into a celebration of book culture in Egypt, and have conceived of this effort as a collaborative one: If you have something that you would like to share, please do. Contributions in all languages are most welcome.


Mark Muehlhaeusler