Cairo Book Fair: from national project to international hub for book lovers

The 51st edition of the Cairo International Book Fair, which kicked off a few days ago, represents one of the Egyptian capital’s most important historical and cultural events — the oldest and largest fair of its kind in the region — and brought intellectuals together for the first time 74 years ago. 

Launched originally after the second World War, the Cairo Book Fair began in Egypt as an Arab national project that brought together Arab peoples and promoted cultural and intellectual exchange.

The Egyptian Minister of Education opened the first book fair on June 20, 1946, with the first ever edition of the fair attended by scholars, public intellectuals, and government ministry officials.

Among the most famous sections at the Book Fair at the time was the Arabic book section printed in Europe and America, which contained The Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina that was printed in Rome in 1593, the New Testament, printed in London in 1616, and A Brief History of Countries by Abu al-Faraj Harun, printed in Oxford in 1663, as well as The Complete History by Ali ibn al-Athir, printed in Europe in 1870.

The fair also housed rare books printed during the French campaign in Egypt, such as Mugamaa al-Tahrirat, which was written in colloquial Egyptian Arabic on the trial of Suleiman Al-Halabi, who killed French general Jean-Baptiste Kleber, leader of the French occupation in Egypt, and was executed in 1800. 

The first edition of the Book Fair also contained the first Egyptian edition of Kalila and Demna, copied from Antoine Isaac Silvestre de Sacy’s Calila Et Dimna: Ou Fables de Bidpai (1816).

During the first book fair, special sections were devoted to each ruler of Egypt, including a section for Muhammad Ali, showcasing books on his rule (1805-1848) and accomplishments.

Another section was dedicated to the rule of Ismail Pasha over Egypt and Sudan (1963-1879), which contained  original books of medicine by doctors of the time Ahmed Nada, Salem Pasha, and Ali Riad.

Two sections were dedicated to the era of King Fouad and Farouk as well, the latter of which included an abundance of Arabic-language books on diverse — and sometimes uncommon — topics.

Military leaders, heads of state, and famous writers and intellectuals have visited Cairo’s annual book fair throughout the decades.

The Cairo International Book Fair today was founded in 1969 by the General Egyptian Book Organization, a government publishers and retailers group.

Egypt’s late Defense Minister Abd Al-Halim Abu-Ghazala (1981-1989) was particularly interested in the Book Fair, which has become a way for writers to showcase their work and for book lovers to buy new and old works for cheap. He even asked at the time that military-owned factories publish books and sell them to the public at the same cost of production.

In 1985, the fair was subjected to a crisis when it devoted a special wing to Israel, with many calling for boycotting the world-renowned festival as a result. Wafd Party Chairman Fouad Seraj Eddin, for example, called on the government to publish information and photos instead of the massacres committed by Israel against the Palestinians.

In 2019, the book fair was moved from its previous location at the fairgrounds in Cairo’s Nasr City to the International Exhibition and Convention Center in the distant suburb of New Cairo, with some publishers protesting the move and vendors from used-book markets opting to hold their own event.

Also that year, the “follow-up committee” of the fair confiscated copies of a book by Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna that were displayed at the event by Moroccan publishing house Dar al-Rashad, a recent example of concerns over the last few decades of censorship at the fair. Islam Bayoumy, then director of exhibitions at the General Egyptian Book Organization, warned publishers at the time that they would be shut down at the fair for selling “banned books.”

This year, the fair boasts 900 publishing houses, up from 747 in attendance in 2019, and vendors from Sour El-Azbakeya, a well-known used book market in the heart of Cairo that did not attend the fair in 2019, has 41 stalls this year, according to President of the Egyptian Publishers Association Saed Abdo.

Edited translation from Al-Masry Al-Youm

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