The Cairo Book Fair
Agence France Presse has an enlightening story on the 2007 Cairo Book Fair. The 39th edition of this event ended on Sunday, and drew an estimated 2 million visitors. The Cairo Book Fair is the Arab world's largest literary event. Unfortunately, as the AFP article makes clear, the book fair also reflects some of the major problems besetting intellectual life in the Muslim Middle East.
One of these, of course, is official censorship:
Partly this could be because certain books did not make it to the fair. As Lebanese publisher Dar Al Adab discovered when the boxes containing works by Milan Kundera, Nikos Kazantzakis, and noted Egyptian authors Nawal Al Saadawi and Edward Al Kharrat were missing.
"We knew from previous experience that the censor had banned them," said Nabil Nofal, a member of the sales team, adding that they never receive official notification or explanation for why the books were not allowed.
According to literary observers, subject matters involving sex, controversial politics, and attacks on religion set off alarms among the censors.
Another issue lies in the dominant position held by Islamist literature at the festival:
Of the 700 Egyptian and Arab publishers at the fair, the vast majority stock religious books on their shelves. "Even we reserve about one-quarter of our catalog for them," said publisher Ansari.
Korans of all styles, from the simple to the leather-bound, share shelf space with collections of religious sayings and fatwas as well as their more modern incarnations on cassettes and compact disks.
"It's become a real business, but this fundamentalism comes from Saudi Arabia and stays with the cynical encouragement of the powers that be," said best-selling Egyptian author Aswani whose social satire the Yacoubian Building has achieved fame far beyond Egypt's borders.
The popularity of one book in particular, pardon the pun, speaks volumes about the ideological climate in Egypt:
The fair also has its darker sides, with anti-Christian polemics advocating conversion to Islam as the only solution to a flawed religion and, of course, plenty of editions of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf for sale.
"It makes up a big part of our success, especially among the 18 to 25 crowd," said Mahmoud Abdullah of the Syrian-Egyptian Dar Al Kitab Al Arabi publishing house.
To be fair, the article also points out the popularity of the works of Naguib Mahfouz, the late Egyptian novelist and Nobel Prize winner. Still, one has to be alarmed by the fact that Islamist tracts and Mein Kampf are among the best sellers at the Muslim Middle East's biggest literary festival.