Literary Publishers in Cairo

A Special Form of Modern Publishing

The German literary publisher Axel von Ernst was invited to Cairo to talk with Egyptian colleagues about the local literary world, as part of a German-Egyptian cultural programme. He describes his impressions in this report

The participants and organisers of the publishing workshop at Cairo's Goethe Institut (photo: Axel von Ernst)
"Clever, laid-back and rather idealistic": the participants and organisers of the publishing workshop at Cairo's Goethe Institut

​​ At the end of the day, Egypt's literature business had a lot in common with the roofs I looked out at from the terrace of my Cairo apartment: dusty, full of satellite dishes, a couple of rubbish tips topped with neon signs, unfinished storeys, niches with folding chairs – and between them all an ultra-modern penthouse terrace and another private paradise of greenery. In other words: a special Egyptian form of modern life.

Clever, laid-back counterparts

Egyptian book publishers for example, as I soon discovered to my great pleasure and surprise, are to all intents and purposes exactly like their German counterparts. All of them are very nice, clever, laid-back, up-to-date and rather idealistic people. I can tar them all with this same brush as I've met at least 12 of them personally as part of a German-Egyptian cultural project.

Running since 2006, this training programme for Arab publishers was organised by the Goethe Institut in conjunction with the German book trade academy, the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Egyptian Publishers Association for a three-year period.

​​ And it was the Goethe Institut's head of information and library services, Ute Reimer-Böhner, who introduced me to the publishers at the last workshop in the programme. I was lucky: the very next day, a meeting was scheduled at the office of Sherif Ismail Bakr, the head of the Al Arabi publishing house, where the small publishers planned to talk about cooperation.

I could ask everyone there anything I liked, Sherif told me, but I shouldn't expect any universally applicable answers. There are as many forms of sales and distribution as there are publishers, he said, and just as many different business models – one house for example (he said, pointing blatantly at a fellow publisher) saves on quality to make a profit; and the other (this time indicating a woman in the room) does without major profit margins for the sake of beautiful books. Loud laughter ensued all round.

Children's literature in Egypt

I got to know the publisher with the beautiful books and lower profit margin a little better at the meeting the next day. She is Balsam Saad, a very likeable woman whose up-and-coming children's books company Al Balsam publishes titles including the world famous Very Hungry Caterpillar.

She was amazed to hear that practically every kindergarten in Germany has a copy of this modern children's classic, which is far removed from the situation here in Egypt. The book is only available in very few bookshops, and Balsam Saad travels personally to individual children's institutions to promote the title.

Direct dealings

A great deal of business is done via personal contacts in general, with no intermediaries such as distributors. As over 80% of all books are on sale only in Cairo, however, that does not involve much travelling.

Publishers deal directly, for example, with the ubiquitous street booksellers, every one of whom, incidentally, has a Hitler biography on offer emblazoned with the requisite swastika, a symbol banned in Germany. And like Sherif Bakr, the host of our meeting, many publishing houses have their own bookstores where they sell their products alongside those of the friendly competition.

The only other main sales outlets are the Arab book fairs, and one point on the agenda at the meeting was a brainstorm on how to organise joint booths there one day.

A new dynamic – or is it stagnation?

Mohammed Hashem (photo: Axel von Ernst)
A legend among Egyptian publishers: Mohammed Hashem

​​ Yet there is a specific problem that has thus far prevented book sales from expanding: distrust. Will the people I send my goods to pay me? Will the people I pay send me their goods? This distrust is particularly virulent when it comes to anonymous trading via the internet, which has therefore made no mark on Egyptian publishing whatsoever.

Print runs are low, as can be expected under the circumstances: 500 – 1000 copies of a title are printed, with sales in the 3000 region an absolute bestseller, even for large publishers.

But there have been major changes over the past ten years or so, giving publishers grounds for optimism. A bestseller list has been launched as well as the Arab Booker Prize, there are now modern bookstores with their own cafés and also a young generation of popular writers (with a number of books emerging from successful blogs).

All this lends the book, previously not very highly regarded in Egyptian society, new significance, with a new modern readership gradually evolving.

"No benefit to culture"

Nevertheless, the question is whether all this will do literature any good. Poetry, ambitious novels and critical non-fiction will no doubt continue to lead a life on the margins, barely accounting for financial profits in the near future. And there is no sign of a grants programme promoting Egyptian authors or the like on the horizon.

From this point of view Mohammed Hashem from Merit Publishing is probably right to dismiss the recent developments emphatically as of no benefit to culture whatsoever. With great verve, he comments that he doesn't need these bestseller lists, bestsellers are poor quality literature, and poor quality literature is of no use for anything.

Merit – Cairo's literary HQ

Mohammed Hashem is a legend among Egyptian publishers; my subsequent visit to his offices was one of the highlights of my trip, tantamount to entering the innermost circle of the Egyptian literary world.

Quality authors are published first by Merit, for instance Alaa al-Aswani, whose novels are the talk of the literary classes, and who moved on from here to a larger publishing house. And they also bring out important translations, including the German-language writers Elfriede Jelinek, Uwe Timm and Feridun Zaimoglu.

Mohammed Hashem, an unassuming figure in his early fifties, is a marvellously radical man of culture, impertinent, funny, direct – and above all uncompromising. He has pawned his wife's jewellery for the publishing house, founded with several companions in 1998, yet the only criterion for its publications is uncompromising quality of the texts; profit projections take a back seat.

Egyptian intellectuals and soccer

Writers published by Merit know they are receiving a respected seal of quality. And as I arrived on a truly auspicious occasion – the evening of an important football match – some of these writers happened to meet up at the publishing house while I was there.

Names were whispered to me, their significance emphasised, books presented to me, the number of foreign translations listed (Dutch, French, Italian, English; never German) – and yet they were all sitting here drinking beer, smoking and watching football together on an old television set with a wobbly aerial.

Unpretentious mix

They could just as well have been taxi drivers; there was no sign of cultural pretensions. And in the midst of it all a new volume of poetry arrived from the printers, beautifully designed like all Merit books, not least thanks to the company's co-founder and graphic designer Ahmed Ellabbad.

The game ended badly for the Egyptian team, dampening spirits and emptying the office again. But later a group of young authors turned up who also write for TV. Now the clothes, hairstyles and habitus were straight out of New York's clubs and London's chill-out zones. Modern times have found their way through to Mohammed Hashem after all, who has nothing against new forms of literature as long as they offer the necessary quality.

Great dedication and adverse conditions

Above the roofs of Cairo by night, looking out across the Nile and the brightly glittering boats pumping out music as they glided by, my mind wandered back over the day's events. Heat, dust, smog and permanently hooting traffic, every building looking close to collapse, but also the laid-back friendliness of the big-city people, the relaxed atmosphere that this marvellous chaos strangely creates – all this also somehow makes up the literary world.

Cairo's publishing world produces wonderful works under adverse conditions, with great dedication – though sadly, only very few of these fantastic books have ever made it to these shores.

And there seems to be movement at every turn, a very special dynamic – moving towards a modern literary business in its very own Egyptian style.

Axel von Ernst

© 2009

Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire

Axel von Ernst, born 1971, is a freelance author and co-publisher of the Lilienfeld publishing house, specialised in rediscovering forgotten literary treasures and rarities. He visited Ciaro on invitation of North Rhine-Westphalia's Bureau for Literature. He lives and works in Düsseldorf, Germany.

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