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Religious tone in Cairo bookfair

At the Cairo Book Fair religious works dominate, while literature and scientific texts are marginalised.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2007, 17:11 IST
Agence France-Presse || Alain Navarro
Agence France-Presse || Alain Navarro

At the Cairo Book Fair, the largest and most important event of its kind in the Arab world, religious works dominate, while literature and scientific texts are often pushed to the margins.

Millions of Cairenes have been thronging to the fair giving it the air of a carnival on the vast exhibition grounds covering 80,000 square metres (861,000 square feet) in northern Cairo and featuring some 1,400 stands of books and CDs.

By Sunday, when the 39th annual fair comes to a close, organisers estimate some two million people will have visited, dwarfing similar events in Beirut, Casablanca and Abu Dhabi - though many complain that the crowds are just there to picnic and buy religious books.

"It is a representation of the conservatism in society," said Arabic language and literature lecturer Adel Abdel Moneim, who has been coming to the fair for years, referring to the vast numbers of inexpensive religious books on offer.

"Still for someone who likes to read or follow new publications, the book fair every year is a golden chance," he added, displaying several stacks of new purchases.

Following the example of the Frankfurt Book Fair, the Cairo event has designated a country as a "guest of honour," with Italy this year following up from Germany's emergence last year.

The event has included literary salons held far from the restless crowds surging through the crumbling fair grounds, including one featuring Italian intellectuals Claudio Magris and Antonio Tabucchi and Egyptian writers Alaa al-Aswani and Gamal Ghitani discussing cross-cultural communication.

"We still have a long road to travel, but there are encouraging signs of dialogue between the cultures and that can take place through more mutual translations," said Antonio Badini, the Italian ambassador to Cairo.

"It is true that the number of publishers from outside the Arab world were rather few and we are trying to encourage them to come," said Nasser al-Ansari, the organiser of the fair and head of the massive General Egyptian Book Organisation, the country's largest publisher.

By far the most feted figure at this year's book fair was recently deceased author Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's Nobel prize winner, whose novels about families in Cairo's popular quarters introduced Egyptian literature to millions around the world.

"I think that his (Mahfouz's) books will be the great success of this fair," said Ansari about the author who was seriously injured by Islamist militants in 1994. "Apart from the religious books of course."

Egypt's Nobel Prize-winning literateur Naguib Mahfouz passed away last year

Of the 700 Egyptian and Arab publishers at the fair, the vast majority stock religious books on their shelves. "Even we reserve about a quarter of our catalogue for them," said publisher Ansari.

Korans of all styles, from the simple to the leather-bound, share shelf space with collections of religious sayings and fatwas as well as their more modern incarnations on cassettes and compact disks.

The collected works of late venerable preachers like Egypt's Sheikh Mohammed Shaarawi and Saudi Arabia's Abdel Aziz bin Baz were present as well, though there was stiff competition from the young "new look" television preachers like Amr Khaled.

"It's become a real business, but this fundamentalism comes from Saudi Arabia and stays with the cynical encouragement of the powers that be," said best-selling Egyptian author Aswani whose social satire the Yacoubian Building has achieved fame far beyond Egypt's borders.

Aswani was barred last year from attending the Cairo premiere of the book's film version because of his politics, but the book has been a runaway success in Egypt with more than 100,000 copies sold since its publication in 2002.

The fair also has its darker sides, with anti-Christian polemics advocating conversion to Islam as the only solution to a flawed religion and plenty of editions of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf for sale.

"It makes up a big part of our success, especially among the 18 to 25 crowd," said Mahmud Abdallah of the Syrian-Egyptian Dar al-Kitab al-Arabi publishing house.

"Allowing the sale of books like MeinKampf' is a total scandal," said Mohammed Arkoun, professor emeritus of Islamic history at the Sorbonne, for whom the Arab cultural production, at least as seen through the lens of the Cairo Book Fair, "reflects above all a certain emptiness".

Partly this could be because certain books didn't make it to the fair. As Lebanese publisher Dar al-Adab discovered when the boxes containing works by Milan Kundera, Nikos Kazantzakis and noted Egyptian authors Nawal al-Saadawi and Edward al-Kharrat were missing.

"We knew from previous experience that the censor had banned them," said Nabil Nofal, a member of the sales team, adding that they never received official notification or explanation for why the books weren't allowed.

According to literary observers, subject matters involving sex, controversial politics and attacks on religion set off alarms among the censors.

For Abdel Moneim, however, who picked up books on translating philosophy from Syria, a two-volume analysis of the Koran by a noted secular Moroccan intellectual and an Arabic translation of Michel Foucault's History of Sex, the fair is still well worth the trip every year.

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