More than books: Cairo International Book Fair as communal space
Part book lovers' haven, part arts festival, we explore the 49th Cairo International Book Fair

“We’re so tired of hanging out at the mall, going to cinemas and eating at restaurants. There’s not much else to do in Egypt, unfortunately. We are desperate for something different. The book fair usually gives us such an opportunity every year. We try to spend as much time here as possible,” says Nourhan, 21, who was taking a break under the shade of a tree, flipping through a book she had just bought at the Cairo International Book Fair, when we spoke to her.

Nourhan explains that she usually comes to the book fair on behalf of her entire family, taking it upon herself to find and buy the books on their list. “I wasn’t able to make it to the fair in 2017. This year is my first time to come with friends. Although book prices here aren’t much lower than they are in bookstores the rest of the year, the fair is still my favorite place to buy books. It’s filled with childhood memories.”

The book fair, which will run until Saturday, kicked off on January 27 with the theme “Soft power: How?” This year a total of 670 publishers from 34 different countries are attending the event, which invited Algeria to be the 2018 guest of honor. Egypt was the guest of honor at Algeria’s 21st Salon International Du Livre in 2016.

While the past few years have seen a significant decrease in the number of fair visitors, in part due to the substantial increase in book prices brought about by the devaluation of the Egyptian pound, publishers say that there has been a high turnout this year.

Queues at the gate to the Cairo Exhibition Ground, where the Cairo International Book Fair is held every year - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

“After the devaluation of the pound, people were shocked by the book prices. They hadn’t yet become accustomed to the overall price increases. However, as people gradually realized that economic conditions affected the price of all goods, their shock started to subside,” says Mahmoud Lotfy, the representative in charge of Tanmeya Bookstore’s  booth during the fair. “Moreover, we, as publishers and bookstores, continue to provide as many offers and discounts as we can. This year the increase in the number of visitors is clear.”

The ritual of buying books for family members isn’t unique to Nourhan, as it appears many of this year’s fair goers are doing the same. We notice, for example, that the practice of bringing suitcases to the fair and filling them up with books, commonplace until a few years ago, has made a comeback. “It’s much more comfortable than walking around with all those heavy bags,” a young woman answers with a laugh when we inquire about the big black suitcase she is dragging behind her.

Visitors read under the shade of a palm tree at the Cairo International Book Fair - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

The idea for the book fair was first conceived by late author Soheir al-Qalamawy, during her tenure as head of Egypt’s General Authority for Books, which is affiliated with the Culture Ministry. The first edition took place in 1969 at the Gezira Exhibition Ground in Zamalek, where the Cairo Opera House stands today. Sixteen years later, the fair was relocated to its current venue, the Nasr City Exhibition Ground, which spans a total area of 700,000 square meters, to accommodate the growing number of publishers and visitors.

“I have a 35-year-long relationship with the book fair, which goes way back to when it was still held in Zamalek,” says Abu Omar. He and his family are sitting on a blanket they have spread out over the grass, beside the picnic, thermos of tea, water and snacks they brought with them.

Abu Omar, who works at one of the Foreign Ministry’s administrative offices, has a lot to say about the fair’s recent developments. “It had been kind of empty throughout the past few years, which was sad to see because for decades people had looked forward to this event, not only to buy books, but also to hang out in the sun and have a good time,” Abu Omar recalls. “It’s a relief to see more visitors returning this year.”

At this point, his son interrupts, eagerly contributing his own thoughts on the fair. Even though he doesn’t read or buy books—a fact that upsets his father—he considers the book fair a “fun outing” that is definitely worth the trip from the Cairo neighborhood of Zeitoun, where the family lives.

Despite Abu Omar’s fervent love of books, he complains about several signs of neglect that he has noticed in recent years, such as the fair’s inefficient organization, and the scarcity of basic amenities, such as clean toilets. “Thousands of people visit the fair daily, and most of them spend the whole day,” he says. “Organizers must be aware of that, and they need to make visitors’ comfort their top priority. They should at least clean the gardens or offer some benches for people to sit on.”

Abu Omar with his family - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

Many visitors air similar grievances, especially regarding the shortage of places to rest and the limited number of shaded areas where people can take shelter from the rain or the scorching sun, both of which have affected this year’s event. Fair goers were drenched on the opening day of the event as it poured with rain, while the subsequent days have seen unusually warm weather, forcing people to crowd in the exhibition tents for longer than usual to escape the heat outside.

Entrance queues at the exhibition ground are also extraordinarily long, with the limited number of  electronic gates hampering their progress. Security personnel will also occasionally refuse entry to visitors in cars, leaving them at the mercy of on-street parking attendants who demand rates significantly higher than the fair’s LE1 ticket, which includes parking inside the venue.

Visitors take shelter from the sun on a bench - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

Support for those visiting the fair is also severely lacking. The state-funded satellite channel DMC was reported in January to have partnered with the General Authority for Books to sponsor a volunteer program for the fair, which would encourage young people to sign up to assist in organizing the event. However, when we finally locate a young man wearing a fluorescent vest and a volunteer badge and ask him for directions to one of the halls, his response is an apologetic, “Sorry, I’m not from around here.”

Other visitors received similar answers from the volunteers who are sparsely positioned around the exhibition ground, so much so that it has become a joke among attendees. “One prominent Arab writer was visiting the other day, and he laughed as he told us how he asked a volunteer for directions, only to be told that the guy is not from around here,” Lotfy says. “‘Well, neither am I,’ the writer responded. ‘Now what do we do about that?’”

On the bright side, the fair’s official website is much more organized, up-to-date and detailed than in previous years. The page now includes maps with directions to all the halls and different publishers’ booths, schedules for seminars, book signings and the different activities taking place each day, as well as a list of children’s programs and performances. Moreover, inquiries made by online users are met with rapid responses, which many of our interviewees found to be helpful.

The fair’s signature taftaf, a small train that transports visitors between the different halls - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

A man and a woman stand near the entrance with their young child, and a baby in a stroller. They anxiously watch the moving crowds as they compete for seats on the taftaf —the slow, colorful, and overcrowded train that visitors use to get around in the fair.

“This is my first time here. My father and mother told me a lot about it. It’s a bit like the school fair where we buy our books,” says Yehia Mohamed, 7, when we approach his father, who in turn encourages the boy to talk to us.

Yehia’s mother, Samar, is Syrian; she is married to an Egyptian and lives in Cairo. She insisted on coming to the book fair with her children, having noticed her older son’s growing attachment to computers and the internet.

Samar thinks—and her husband, Mohamed, agrees—that children’s attention spans are negatively affected by how long they spend playing computer games and watching cartoons on television, instead of reading books that would stimulate their imagination.  “Enough with the tablets. Children must realize that books are more important,” she says.

Yehia and his family - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

The fair offers an array children’s activities, including an open-mic stage where visitors can take the floor to read or sing a piece of their choosing. One of this year’s highlights, the open mic runs during the day’s early hours and all anyone has to do is get on stage and grab the microphone. After 1 pm, however, the stage is reserved for school choirs and bands.

Dozens of tents and aluminium-roofed halls are arranged to display the hundreds of thousands of books and publications available. However, this isn’t all there is to the Cairo International Book Fair. As well as hosting publishers, the fair also functions as an art festival of sorts, providing Egyptians of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds the opportunity to partake in cultural activities, which they may not be exposed to otherwise. This includes everything from panel discussions, to art shows and musical performances. The event is not only popular with locals, as schools and cultural centers from across the country organize trips to the fair. People from other governorates often organize their own trips, renting buses to transport small groups to and from Cairo for a day trip.

Children’s activities within one of the publishers’ areas - Courtesy: Ahmed Abdel Gawad - Photograph: أحمد عبد الجواد

The Cairo International Book Fair has its loyal patrons. No matter the changes wrought outside the gates of the exhibition ground, these faithfuls will continue to visit every winter, even if they are unable to buy all the books they want. After all, a LE1 ticket offers ample opportunities for fun: children have space to play, enjoy snacks and receive free gifts handed out by some children’s book publishers; while young adults are offered a large, welcoming outdoor space where they can hang out in groups, read, chat, lie on the grass  and use the books as pillows. This time every year, the Nasr City Exhibition Ground becomes one massive open library.

Karoline Kamel 

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