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... .


  1. bonjour
    disposez vous toujours de livres sur la campagne d egypte ,en particulier ceux edités par l institut français d archéologie orientale merci cordialement

  2. bonjour
    disposez vous toujours de livres sur la campagne d egypte ,en particulier ceux edités par l institut français d archéologie orientale merci cordialement