Cairo’s book fair is back

Writers and readers alike reflect on revolution in Egypt's first major international cultural event since Mubarak's overthrow.

Bookstore 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Bookstore 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
CAIRO - One-year ago Egypt was embroiled in massive street protests. A Day of Rage occurred as the country rose up after decades of dictatorship to force out its aging dictator, who had promised years earlier to “remain in office until death.” Like much else in the country back then, the Cairo International Book Fair fell victim to the chaos.
Protests and strikes are still the norm in Egypt, where many fear the interim government of generals ruling Egypt threaten the revolution. But something else has returned from last year: the Cairo book fair is back. Some 745 publishers from 29 countries (17 of them Arab) are taking part in the fair, which runs until February 7.
And revolution is in the air. Besides the usual cultural activities, a section this year is dedicated to the testimonies of the revolutionaries. Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, is the guest of honor, with a group of the country’s intellectuals and artists attending in order to share their experience with revolution.
Amnesty International, the London-based human rights movement, is displaying its literature at this year’s fair, a first ever for the organization, which has had a testy relationship with Egypt’s interim military government.
A week since the fair opened on January 22 organizers told The Media Line they have not seen as many people as years past, but the event has literature connoisseurs excited. Ordinary fair goers seem to be authentically sharing in this year’s theme. Sharif Abdel Moneim, a school teacher, brought his three children, aged 10, 12 and 13, to the fair, hoping they would peruse and choose books to read at home. The topic they want to read about more than any other, he says, is the protests that ousted President Husni Mubarak a year ago.
“We came yesterday and all they wanted were books on the revolution. They want to know what happened and what people were doing. It is refreshing to see and I think good for the country,” he added. “It‘s always great to see all the different people out and getting books to take home and read.”
Amani Eltunsi is one of the few young Egyptians who have seen opportunity in the new-found freedoms, even if they have eroded somewhat since the early days of the revolution as the interim military government brings back some of the Mubarak-era restrictions on freedom of expression. She took to her computer to write.
Her English-language book A Girl’s Wishes From Tahrir Square, is available at book shops across the country, and people are picking it up in order to have a glimpse into the daily lives of Egyptian youth, especially women.
 “I was inspired to share my story - the positives and the negatives - and to let people know we are here,” Eltunsi told The Media Line in an e-mail,
The young woman heads the publishing house Shabab Books, which aims to enable the revolution's youth to tell their story. It has published a number of shorter volumes on the 18 days of uprising. But the popular titles are those like Eltunsi, where women are finally revealing more about life in Egypt in the post-Mubarak era: dating, eating, hanging out with friends, family and, of course, their experience during the revolution.
“It is an opportunity to break through the barriers that people think exist in Egypt and to speak out in this country after the revolution,” Eltunsi added.
Tunisia, this year’s guest of honor, began the Arab Spring a few weeks before Egypt’s own uprising started, ousting its president and setting into motion the wave of in popular uprisings in Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria known as the 'Arab Spring.' Some were successful, others still in limbo, but the fear that had been part of the Arab psyche regarding their leaders has dissipated, and with it the desire to tell the story.
This is what makes this year’s book fair so important. It is, truly, a revolutionary tale. Lining almost every stall are titles such as Tweets from Tahrir, 18 Days of Struggle and What Made the Egyptian Revolution. Together with the birthplace of the Arab Spring, Egyptians and the world are feeling the excitement of the revolution through the written word.
“I think what we are really seeing right now is the sense of freedom and the need to tell our story to people,” says Hamed Radwan, the manager of a small stall at the fair. He, too, says the majority of the titles he has sold are books on the revolution.
“We are selling a massive number of books this year even though the revolutionary ones are the most popular,” he added.
Other major cultural events were cancelled last year, including the International Cairo Film Festival, the International Experimental Theater Festival, the National Film Festival and the National Theater Festival. The book fair marks the first major international cultural event in post-revolution Egypt and it is a source of hope that despite the country’s continued political gyrations and sputtering economy, other international events will follow.
For Eltunsi and others, the book fair is the culmination of the uprising that gave Egyptians their sense of justice and freedom back. While pundits lauded the role of new media, particularly the social media outlets of Facebook and Twitter, they remain firm believers in the old media printed on paper. The book fair is a chance for the old media to make a comeback as a revolutionary forum.
“People knew about the protests and where to go because they gave out papers and notes to friends and family about where to go,” says Eltunsi.
With thousands remaining on the street, the book fair is the extension of the revolution, says one activist. He argued that only through detailing the uprising and what happened, “can the country begin to put things back and understand where we are going. It’s great to see the young people out and reading about it.”