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 ....