After being postponed from January due to Covid-19, the 52nd edition of Cairo International Book Fair began on Thursday in the Egyptian capital’s most prominent exhibition hall, the Egypt International Exhibition Centre.
Because the festival is being held amid a pandemic, this year things look much different at the fair, which has become a staple of Cairo’s annual events roster.
A much-anticipated affair for thousands of Cairenes each year, the fair usually takes place during the winter break in January, a time when schools are on holiday, allowing children and young adults – the fair’s most important target group – to browse freely the titles and engage their intellect.
For the first time, tickets to the fair are free of charge this year and must be booked online ahead of arrival to the venue in order to limit physical contact between visitors.
The Egyptian book market was hit hard by the pandemic, says Wagida Reda, the sales director at the state-owned General Egyptian Book Organisation, which organises the fair each year for the Ministry of Culture.
“For publishers in Egypt, the fair drums up a lot of demand from customers, something that they need this year more than ever before because of what the pandemic did to book sales nationwide,” says Reda.
The previous edition of the festival narrowly missed the onset of the pandemic as it took place in January 2020. Many of the fair’s regular patrons were worried that there wouldn’t be a fair this year.
“It’s one of my family’s favourite events each year, we usually come every day for the two weeks of the fair. We love the books, but we also love the atmosphere. There is good food and it’s always good to get out of the house. I am really happy that it ended up happening this year, even if it was delayed,” says Maysa El Leisy, 43.
Limited incomes of people due to the economic drawbacks of the pandemic were taken into consideration this year, says Reda. Under the Ministry of Culture's initiative called Your Culture, Your Books, it was ensured that there would be a wide range of titles on offer, priced between one and 20 Egyptian pounds ($0.06 to $1.3).
“The books included in the initiative are offered through state-owned publishing houses who print everything from theology to fantastical fiction. All in the stated price range,” explains Reda.
Independent publishers are allowed to price their titles as they see fit, but Reda says that most books on offer are affordable to make sure the majority of the fair’s visitors are included.
She said the most expensive books are encyclopaedias because of the high cost of printing them. There are also special edition copies of prominent titles, which cost a bit more as well.
Overall, there are 1,218 publishers presenting books at the fair’s 756 pavilions. There are also 25 foreign publishers participating this year.
The fair is divided among four massive halls at New Cairo’s 40,000 square metre Egypt International Exhibition Centre, each housing thousands of books in a wide range of genres.
While there are usually hordes of people visiting the many food vendors who set up shop in the open-air parts of the premises, this year, most people are spending their time indoors because Cairo is going through a heat wave that makes being out in the Sun a little unbearable.
Walking among the crowd are a number of health ministry personnel who check that all visitors adhere to the precautionary measures put in place by the fair’s organisers.
Absent from this year’s edition are book signings, which played an important role in past iterations of the fair. They've been cancelled due to Covid-19 preventive measures.
The fair runs for two weeks until Thursday, July 15, when a closing ceremony will be held to celebrate the end of the event.