Egypt’s reading revolution

Last month, two major bookstores shut down in Oman, and a few months earlier two Dubai bookshops closed their doors for the last time. The Guardian reported last year that the UK’s independent bookstores were closing at a rate of “two a week”.

In the US, dozens of bookstores are also shuttering their windows and selling out their stock. Printed newspapers are closing so fast that websites like Newspaper Death Watch have spawned to keep an eye on the print media’s vitals.

But in Egypt, where the financial picture is arguably more challenging, bookstores, newspapers, and publishing houses are opening up.

Two daily papers have appeared since Hosni Mubarak’s resignation: Youm7 has gone from being a weekly to a daily, and Al-Tahrir appeared on newsstands in early July. Kalila & Dimna, a children's bookstore and cultural center, was conceived and opened in the months since Mubarak was forced out of office. And chain bookstores continue to open: Alef has just opened a small branch inside the City Stars mall, and will soon inaugurate a branch in 6th of October City.

Why all this activity?

“I think, maybe, it’s hope,” says Kalila & Dimna managing partner Nermeen Magdy. “We hope for a better future for our kids.”

Magdy and her partner Ahmed Higazy have always loved books, she says. And “the idea of doing something useful, especially for our kids, was always on our minds.” But they only decided to open a bookstore this March.

“We just started thinking of this idea after Mubarak left. We stayed for days without sleep to think about it.”

Last July, the Economist predicted that, based on local and global trends, Egypt would reach 90 percent literacy within a generation. While this might well come to be, most Egyptians currently place little value on reading for its own sake. On the other hand, Magdy says, Egyptians believe deeply in the value of education. So when people give books to their children, the books they choose are not for fun but for educating children about science, math or a foreign language.

But Magdy believes something new is afoot, something that has accelerated since 25 January.

The arrival of the bookstores

The rapid growth of large, full-service bookstores began nearly a decade ago with the establishment of the Diwan chain in 2002. By 2010, there were more than 30 full-service bookstores around Egypt, largely concentrated in Cairo and Alexandria.

In early 2011, the Cairo International Book Fair was shut down, and book sales took a hit. Sales slid further when many people stopped buying as both jubilation and unease followed Mubarak’s resignation. Nonetheless, in the post-Mubarak era the book world has found ways to grow yet more vibrant.

Hind Wassef, co-founder of Diwan, says that, “With the revolution, content is even more abundant than earlier in the decade, and young people are writing and publishing with extra drive.”

One of the exciting new publishing initiatives is Division Books, a graphic-novel house founded by Marwan Imam and Mohamed Reda in February 2011. Imam says that the ambitious new house is “planning on publishing a vast array of comics and graphic novels.”

Imam sees great potential in Egypt for a comic book market. The nation, he said, “is in fact hungry for it.”

The publishing house’s first graphic novel, a bilingual English-Arabic collection titled “Autostrade”, will go on sale mid-July. The first copies will be sold exclusively at Nasr City’s Bikya Books and Café, which itself had a grand opening just this March.

Wassef feels that Cairo might be hitting its big-bookstore saturation point. But she added that “other governorates are hungry for this and I think there are serious opportunities there. We have even been approached by some really enthusiastic young people, who would like to open Diwan in those governorates.”

Balsam Saad, founder of Dar al-Balsam publishing house and Al-Balsam Bookstore, agrees about the opportunities in other governorates. But she adds that the saturation point, even in Cairo, is still a ways off. “We are a population of over 80 million.”

The shift from English to Arabic

English still retains prestige among parents and book-buyers, and English books still command a good deal of shelf space at Egypt’s big bookstores. Relatively new houses like Saray Publishing and Shabab Books have put out several locally written titles in English to some success. But, at least in the children’s-book world, something new is in the air.

The two new big children’s bookstores – Giza’s Al-Balsam, which opened in May 2010, and Maadi’s Kalila & Dimna, which opened in June – focus primarily on Arabic books. Earlier in the year, Saad said that she was “certain that, after the revolution, things will change.” She felt sure that parents and children would be more interested in their heritage and in Arabic books.

Now, Saad states just as firmly, “I believe that post revolution Cairo is rediscovering itself.” This re-discovery includes great Arab poets and writers, because “an important part of … identity is language, long neglected and abused.”

Many of the new ventures are born out of a revolutionary spirit, and the desire for a new Egypt, culturally, socially and intellectually. “Reading is the only way to create independent thinkers,” Kalila & Dimna’s Magdy says. But the newest publishers and booksellers also believe that their ventures have a good chance at economic success.

Not everything is rosy: Book censorship, fears of an economic downturn, and lack of governmental transparency continue to lurk at the edges of the book world’s optimism. Magdy says that, yes, she and her partner have sometimes have fretted over whether Kalila & Dimna will be financially successful.

But “if we don’t defeat our worries, the wheels will not turn … nothing will become better.”

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