Trekking through what looks more like a refugee camp than a cultural venue, Youssef Rakha goes on a wild goose chase to Tunisia
Founded in 1969, the last year of Nasser’s life and reign, the Cairo International Book Fair is perhaps the largest book-centred event in the Arab world. Year after year under Sadat and then Mubarak, the event kept expanding, promising but not fulfilling its promise to turn Cairo into a city of bibliophiles. Partly because it is organised not by independent publishers but by Culture Ministry bureaucrats (the General Egyptian Book Organisation or GEBO is only a publisher insofar as it indiscriminately prints and stores huge amounts of material), partly because it caters to a far broader audience base than the population’s true core of committed readers, the Cairo Book Fair seldom focused on literature as such.
There are two sides to the Cairo Book Fair as far as intellectual activity is concerned: a formal, luxuriously furnished space for the main programme, presided over by government officials and established, more or less right-wing figures; and the slum-like, more informal setting occupied by several concurrent programmes catering to the penniless and left-wing intellectual majority. Apart from bigger sales for some (especially non-Egyptian) Arabic book publishers in various wings of the fair grounds, however, neither side has ever been directly book related; in a country and a region with phenomenal illiteracy rates and only the most whimsical conception of how books, once printed, might actually be used, things like the logistics of selecting books for publication, marketing and selling them were, for 42 years, summarily disregarded. And after missing a round in 2011, this year’s Book Fair is no exception. Not that one expected a significant shift of perspective or any palpable improvements under the political circumstances, but divested of its the first, official side (neither the prime minister nor Field Marshal Tantawi turned up for the opening), the present fair – the 43rd – does prove remarkably different.
As has been the case with many institutional activities after 25 January, one has the feeling that the revolution – rather than actually reforming institutions – has simply exposed their failures. While the family-outing atmosphere at the fair grounds persists, evidence of luxury and high-profile presence has been eradicated. There are fewer visitors and fewer occupied buildings, while the tent pitched on paved ground and (especially) on the sand instills a sense of being, not so much in a cultural venue as in a sprawling and ill equipped refugee camp.
Apart from Saraya 19 and a building dedicated to Saudi books (it is a well known fact that most Arab books, even those by Saudi authors, are banned in Saudi Arabia, which publishes little in its own right), there are no buildings in sight. Even the toilets, labelled with printouts indicating who was allowed to use them, consist of makeshift trucks stationed near the parking lot, through which you entered the fair as if you had arrived at a long abandoned ranch project with only a fraction of the necessary construction completed. Half-torn signs fluttered endlessly…
This feeling is no doubt intensified no less by the nature of the fair grounds, which have always been in a permanent state of unfinished construction but are more so now – to the extent that even the poster pyramid meant to celebrate the revolution has its scaffolding half exposed – as by the wind-swept dust from the neighbouring construction site of the Metro. Only Saraya 19, which brings together non-Egyptian publishers including a ludicrously modest display of Tunisian books, Tunisia being the guest of honour of the book fair, bears any resemblance to a display space.
Haphazard as ever, the activities go on in dust-drenched tents: on Monday, at the Cultural Café, the liberal-turned-pro-Muslim-Brotherhood young activist Alaa Abdelfattah spoke to a handful of people about ways to avoid and/or expose massacres of protestors by SCAF. As in previous years at the Cultural Café, people walked in and out at leisure – mobile phone galore. Elsewhere the annual overdose of ridiculously bad vernacular poetry was being recited. A bearded man held a brand-new Quran in one hand and a shawerma sandwich in the other…
At some point while walking past the tents, regaled by Friday prayer sermons from invisible amplifiers, I got it into my head that, since it is the guest of honour, Tunisia must have a separate display elsewhere on the fair grounds. I went to the information kiosk where I was told, gruffly enough, to walk to the end of the adjoining street and then take a left. All the way along young salesmen stopped me, aggressively hawking laptops and electronic dictionaries: at least 10 of them within the space of 15 minutes. (Again, what this has to do with books is beyond me.) But it wasn’t until I was out of breath, my face caked with dust, that I realised: the man in the information kiosk was actually directing me to Saraya 19, exactly where I was before. Apart from a mawkish gateway in the middle of nowhere which, bearing the sign of the Book Fair, indicated that Tunisia was the guest of honour, there were only the tips of tents fluttering from afar.
photo: Youssef Rakha