Cairo, the book lover’s mecca

Every year, the Cairo International Book Fair attracts more than two million visitors, 3000 publishers and an average of three million books. With these impressive statistics, it can call itself the biggest book fair in the Arab world. Despite the turbulent times Egypt is going through at the moment, the book fair tries to keep its head above water as a major cultural event. It is clear that the book fair is not only a paradise for those who love books, it has also been considered as a meeting place where new ideas spring up.

The oldest book fair in the world

With its 44th edition, the book fair is believed to be the oldest in the whole world. Its roots go back to the year 1969, when Cairo celebrated its 1000th anniversary. In honour of this special occasion, the biggest publishing house of Egypt, called The General Egyptian Book Organisation, set up an international book fair.

Book lovers from all over the world can indulge themselves in the tents of various publishers. There’s not only new books on display, but it is also possible to purchase old works at often very low prices at that. The publishers, authors, illustrators, printers and librarians get the chance to establish national and international contacts and to expand their networks, which encourages the cultural cooperation between the various countries.

The Cultural Café, Tahrir avant la lettre

Beside its cultural status, the book fair is also of political significance. Next to the book tents we can find al-maqha al-thaqafy, the Cultural Café, an excellent place to discuss about political matters. Different kinds of people – a mix of intellectuals, activists, political personalities and religious figures – come together and exchange ideas while sipping their coffee or tea.

The Cultural Café is the symbolic pioneer of what Tahrir Square means to the people of Egypt. In the past, visitors of the Café tried to figure out different ways to protest. For example, there has been a demo opposing the participation of Israel, and visitors have been protesting the war in Iraq.

The book fair played an important role in the political scene, and not just because of the opponents present. The former regime also used the fair to strengthen its own position. In the early years, the book fair opened its doors to various intellectuals, political and media figures. Later on, the regime grew suspicious and limited the list of lecturers, until it only consisted of people who shared the regime’s views.

In times of revolution

On January 25, 2011, the Egyptian Revolution kicked off and led to the end of the Mubarak era. The fair in Cairo is held every year in late January, which means it inevitably coincided with the Revolution. It was decided to cancel the fair, in order to pay respect to those killed and wounded. Booklovers from all over the world were afraid that the fair would be shut down forever. So they were overcome with joy when the book fair re-opened in 2012.

These tents replace the former book halls.

However, last year’s fair was defined by a strange atmosphere. The former regime had planned to restructure the fair and had already started taking down the traditional book halls. Instead of these buildings, tents were now used to exhibit the books to the public. A lot of publishers flocked to Tahrir Square on January 25 and 26 to commemorate the Revolution. This was the reason the book fair closed for two days. It is important to note that this edition of the fair featured a large amount of books discussing the Arab Spring and the success of the Egyptian Revolution.

The book fair anno 2013

This year the book fair consists of publishers coming from 25 different countries, including 17 countries in the Arab world. For this 44th edition, Libya was chosen as guest of honour. Libya’s tent not only displays new books, it also offers an exhibition of pictures of the victims who gave their lives during the reign of Qadhaffi. More than 3500 martyrs are documented here.

 

Photo right: Libya’s tent, this year’s guest of honour
Photo left: Gallery with pictures of the martyrs of the Libyan Revolution.

 

On the program of the book fair we can find round table discussions on how books are published in Libya, the role of women during the Libyan Revolution, and the importance of young authors and activists in its transition. There are also a number of lectures on new books in the Cultural Café. Special attention has been given to new books about the Egyptian Revolution, the Arab Spring and its consequences. There is also room for creative workshops and every evening it’s poetry night.

On January 25, already the second anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution, the book fair was open but with limited activities being scheduled. Some publishers decided not to open their boxes of books until after the 25th. The fair initially saw a low turnout of visitors, due to, according to some, the volatile situation in Egypt. But those absent don’t know what they are missing. The International Book Fair is open until the 5th of February. Otherwise you will have to wait until next year to pay a visit to the largest book fair in the Arab world.

Photos: © Ali Amen

 

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