Since May, 4000 Korean books and DVDs have occupied some of the stacks of Cairo’s biggest public library, Dar al-Kotob.
As part of the “Window on Korea” initiative, the National Library of Korea donated a collection that consists mostly of books written in Korean – with the exception of 300 titles in English – to Egypt after a memorandum of understanding was signed between the two countries in 2006.
It might seem a strange gift, a bequest of books in a language that few Egyptians understand, but the South Korean Embassy envisions the initiative as a way to encourage understanding between South Korea and Egypt.
And surprisingly, the collection may address a real desire to access Korean culture.
Interest in Korean music, film, fashion and video games is a global phenomenon, so distinct that it’s been dubbed the “Korean wave” or “Hallyu.” This wave has not bypassed Egypt. In the past few years, for example, two Korean TV stations have been added to the standard line-up on NileSat, showing subtitled and dubbed soap operas, movies and pop song contests.
Meanwhile, in response to rising interest in Korean pop music in Egypt, the South Korean Embassy in Cairo is starting contests for Egyptians to compete with their best renditions of Korean favorites, says Park Jae Yang, the embassy's cultural and information counselor.
Park hopes that the new collection at Dar al-Kotob will provide another resource for Korean culture fanatics to learn about the country and draw obsessive YouTube viewers out of their rooms and into the library.
“Some Egyptians interested in Korea and the Korean language are learning it over the internet,” explains Park, “but now they can go read real books about Korea, and books stay in your memory.”
Several Egyptian universities have started Korean language and translation programs, including Ain Shams and Helwan universities in Cairo, as well as the High Institutes for Tourism and Hotels in Luxor and Alexandria.
“The new master’s program in Korean at Ain Shams University will soon have its first graduating class, and those students can make use of this resource,” says Park.
Zain Abdul Hady, director of Dar al-Kotob, told Al-Masry Al-Youm that translation and literature departments at Egypt’s leading universities have been informed of the collection, and invited to come view the books.
“Hopefully people in Egypt studying Korean will eventually decide to translate books from Window on Korea,” says Park.
Free Korean language classes offered at the embassy are in such high demand that 800 applicants regularly compete for the 100 spaces available, he adds.
While few books are written in Arabic about Korea, and even fewer Korean books are translated into Arabic, Window on Korea opens up the possibility that this might change. Identical collections exist in 13 other countries, but Egypt is the first in Africa and the Middle East to host one.
Window on Korea is meant to be a well-rounded resource for anyone interested in learning about the country. While this reporter may not have been able to properly verify that, being unable to read most of the books, the scattered English titles appear to cover basic information about Korean culture.
The literature section includes short stories and folk tales along with a few novels, such as Native Speaker, by the celebrated Korean-American author Chang Rae-Lee. The works of Bruce Cumings, the foremost American scholar of modern Korean history, feature in the history section.
Other highlights include a bilingual edition of the South Korean constitution, in English and Korean, and Missionary Photography in Korea: Encountering the West through Christianity, a beautifully illustrated book that approaches the influential missionary presence in Korea during the early 20th century from multiple perspectives.
There are also books about Korean filmmakers and traditional crafts, as well as five Korean novels translated into Arabic.
Window on Korea will be regularly updated, as the National Library of Korea will be donating 200 new books, mostly in English, annually until 2050.
It is intended to be a place for all Egyptians who have caught the Korean culture bug to gather and learn, as well as a potential Middle East hub for research on Korea. It may also facilitate bringing Korean literature to an Arabic audience, which might just make Egypt’s case of “Hallyu” more severe.
A Korean-speaking library assistant is stationed at the library on weekdays, from 10:00 to 15:00, to help patrons with the collection.