Cairo's Literature Scene

Between New Dynamics and Political Repression

Arabic literary publishers usually only conduct small print-runs, and readers usually belong to a restricted clique of intellectuals. But recent times have seen a shift in the literary scene on the Nile. Susanne Schanda went to see for herself

photo: courtesy Samar Ali
More room to maneuver for Egyptian literature and female writers: from left: writers Samar Ali and Sahar el-Mougy, and Dr. Mona Ibraheem, Professor of English Literature at Cairo University

​​ It all began with the novel "The Yacoubian Building". The book by Alaa al-Aswani, published in 2002, marked the start of a new reading boom in Egypt, and topped the Arabic bestseller lists for two years. Numerous translations and its elaborate screen adaptation in 2005 with a star-studded cast and a record budget catapulted the novel onto the international market.

It was only after this success that the author was able to publish a work that he had already written in 1990, but which the General Egyptian Book Organization had previously rejected.

Fiction in crisis

Speaking in Cairo, the author says it is much easier to publish a book today than it was 10 years ago. "We had a reading crisis in Egypt in the 1990s, hardly anyone was reading fiction," he says. "As a result, the private publishing houses were cautious about taking on writers, so I tried it through the state book organization and failed."

photo: Samir Grees
"The social climate has changed for the better." Best-selling author - and one-day-a-week dentist - Alaa Al-Aswani

​​ Alaa al-Aswani, who still works as a dentist in spite of his success and gives interviews at his dental practice every Friday, points out the newly opened bookstore on the other side of the street.

"The shop is doing well. But anyone wanting to open a bookstore in the 1990s might just as well have chucked money in the Nile. Now it's worth getting into this business, and that means people are reading again. The social climate has changed for the better."

Bestseller lists and writing seminars

Many new bookstores have sprung up in recent years, a fact that shows there is a burgeoning market in Egypt. The words "Al-Kotob Khan" (The Book Market) are written in elegantly contoured Arabic characters on the door of a bookstore in Maadi, a district beyond the center of Cairo home to mostly educated members of the upper-middle class. Next to the entrance, there is a sign with two bestseller lists.

The Arabic list is topped by the Arabic Booker Prize-winning novel by Egyptian author Jussuf Ziedan, "Azazeel". As for the English-language bestsellers, top of that list is the young Egyptian writer Samar Ali with her volume of poetry "Tannoura", ahead of Paulo Coelho, Khaled Hosseini and Barack Obama's "Change We Can Believe In".

Focus on young, innovative literature

Samar Ali is 27 years old, like Alaa al-Aswani she earns a living as a dentist, and writes poems in English and short stories in Arabic. "Tannoura" was published by the recently founded publishing house Malamih, which focuses on young, innovative literature and comics from Egypt and publishes in both English and Arabic.

"I grew up in Madrid, my degree course was taught in English, so I'm bilingual," explains the writer in Café Boursa in downtown Cairo. Together with other young writers and the established author and university professor Sahar el-Mougy, she likes to come here to unwind after a creative writing course session.

Literature as fig leaf

source: publisher
Spiritual and sexual independence for women: Cover of Sahar el-Mougy's novel "Noon"

​​ El-Mougy confirms the impression that the literature scene has been invigorated over the past few years. This is partly due to the relative freedom granted to writers by the state, she says. But the writer is under no illusions: "The government uses us as a fig leaf to show how liberal it is," she says. "But the moment we start criticizing the government, that's where the freedom stops."

The feminist and writer Sahar el-Mougy is a role model for many female students and young writers. She writes columns on social and political issues for the independent newspaper "Almasry Alyoum" and in her latest novel "Noon" (the Arabic character N) argues not just for spiritual, but also for sexual independence for women.

Stories from the streets of Cairo

Literature now has more room to maneuver, and this new scope is being exploited to the full. The novel "Taxi" by Khaled al-Khamissi is another work that has fairly flown off the shelves, and has already been translated into numerous languages, including English. The author shines a spotlight on Egyptian society by mirroring it in stories experienced by and related to taxi drivers on the street.

source: publisher
"Taxi drivers are a barometer of society." Cover of Khaled al-Khamissi's "Taxi", English edition

​​"Taxi drivers are a barometer of society. There are 250,000 of them working in Cairo alone," says the author and adds that actually driving a taxi is not a profession, but a job that people do on the side, or to tide themselves over for a while. "Many unemployed people drive taxis until they find a proper job again. There are civil servants who work in offices in the mornings, then drive a taxi in the afternoons. The drivers come from a variety of professional and social backgrounds."

Al-Khamissi stresses that his book is not a journalistic reportage or a social study, but fiction. "For me, it was about telling revealing stories about Egyptian society, episodes that take place hundreds of times every day."

One of the stories is about a young veiled woman who gets into a taxi in a poor district, and changes her clothes during the journey. When she reaches her destination, a four-star hotel where she works as a waitress, she leaves the taxi transformed – wearing makeup and a miniskirt. These taxi stories are simple and straightforward, and have a moving and authentic impact.

The influence of bloggers

For a long time, reading in Egypt was regarded as a pastime for intellectuals, university professors and literary critics. Few people read out of curiosity, or simply for pleasure. But now, literature is reaching sections of society beyond the traditional elite.

photo: Susanne Schanda
Shortlisted for last year's Arabic Booker Prize: Mekkawi Said, author of "Cairo Swan Song" and head of Al-Dar Publishers

​​ For the writer and publisher Mekkawi Said, the Internet and the blogger scene have had a decisive influence on literature's sudden enhanced appeal. His novel "Cairo Swan Song", which has just been translated into English, caused few ripples in the literary world when it first appeared in 2007.

"Then numerous bloggers talked about the book and recommended it. This intensive promotion on the Internet finally led to the book being included on the shortlist of last year's Arabic Booker Prize. Only then did newspaper critics write about it," says Said.

His novel has already sold 50,000 copies. That is a large number when you consider that the print-run of a book in Arabic is usually limited to between 3,000 and 5,000 copies.

Access to information and knowledge

But the new culture of reading is not solely due to the active blogger scene in the Arab world. Said points out the influences of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, which society has been exposed to in recent decades.

"On the one hand, Egyptian workers returning from the Gulf brought with them the conservative Wahhabi interpretation of Islam, which does not suit our tolerant society.

"At the same time, the economic boom in the Gulf States meant that children and young people were offered a good education, which they are making use of now by reading books," says the 54-year-old. He adds that the young generation has improved access to information and knowledge and is therefore more open than his generation, which suffered under the leftist ideology and bigotry of President Nasser.

Literature as a consumer item

Mekkawi Said has complete faith in literature. Three years ago, he gave up his day job as an auditor and founded the Al-Dar publishing house. He says business is going well. With 230 titles to date, his is now the fifth largest publisher in Egypt.

photo: Susanne Schanda
Literature reaching sections of society beyond the traditional elite: Karam Youssef, author and bookseller at "Al-Kotob Khan", Cairo

​​ The bookseller at "Al-Kotob Khan" in Maadi, Karam Youssef, has for the first time published a book with texts produced at a literature workshop, stories written in the bookstore café under the tutelage of writer Yasser Abdellatif.

The bookstore, which opened three years ago, is at once a publishing house and a cultural center. Karam Youssef says its location outside the city center is no problem: "Book worms will go to any lengths to seek out the books they want." But the established bookstore "Diwan" is taking no chances. Aside from the well-patronized main store in the district of Zamalek, it has opened branches in four other parts of Cairo. That way, it can ensure it meets the needs of readers in the Egyptian capital.

Susanne Schanda

© 2009

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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