Crowds throng between books stacked high at this year’s Cairo International Book Fair. The event attracted four million visitors last year and on my visit, pushing to the front of the book stalls keen to find rare volumes or unmissable bargains, there were no signs of a lull in its popularity.
By way of appealing to all interests, there is the usual schedule of book signings, cinema screenings, poetry readings and panel discussions, some pegged to the literary history of Algeria, the fair's guest country.
The books to read this year
One of this year's hugely anticipated novels is Nael El Toukhy's Al-Khoroug Men Al-Bala'a (Out of the Gutter), published by Al Karma. It is the author's first since his social critique, Women of Karantina (2014). The copy had not arrived by the time of my visit, but I managed to snatch a rare collection of personal essays by renowned Egyptian activist and writer Latifa al-Zayyat. All recent releases are sold at a 20 per cent discount.
Al Karma is the engine behind Kol Hatha Al-Haraa (All That Rubbish, 2017) by renowned novelist Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, who also wrote the acclaimed post-revolutionary dystopic novel Bab Al-Khoroug (Exit Door, 2012). The former is on display this year, alongside journalist Ibrahim Eissa's recent novel Rehlet Al-Dam (A Bloody Journey).
The Egyptian-Lebanese publishing house Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah was a bountiful stop. Among my purchases is a three-part series of collected essays in which Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz weighs in on culture, philosophy, Arabism and notions of freedom. Each was a mere LE10 (Dh2). I also spotted a ragged copy of a short story by J M Coetzee, translated into Arabic and sold for LE5. Steals aside, among Al Masriah Al Lubnaniah's latest releases is Ana Wal Cinema (The Cinema and Me) by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, an anthology of the writer's ponderings on the Egyptian film industry.
Al-Mahrousa just released Honna Badan, the latest from award-winning novelist Basma Abdel Aziz, alongside a new edition of her bestseller Al-Tabour (The Queue, 2013), translated into English in 2016. Both come recommended, in addition to Dar Altanweer's 2018 short story collection La Ahad Yarthy Qitat Al-Madina (Nobody Mourns the City's Cats), in which Mohamed al-Haj employs classical Arabic for the narrative and colloquial Arabic for dialogue, reminiscent of Yusuf Idris.
Altanweer's pavilion displays Arabic translations of essential texts, from philosophical contemplations by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Immanuel Kant to faultless prose by Oscar Wilde and Gabriel García Márquez. An Arabic translation of Manal al-Sherif's Daring to Drive: A Saudi Woman's Awakening (2017) is also among its latest releases.
The second-hand market
I spent much of the afternoon at Soor Al-Azbakeya, the ubiquitous collection of second-hand stalls named after downtown Cairo's book market. It's where the crowds are younger, bargaining is standard and vendors shout out offers. After much crouching and thumbing through wide-ranging, dusty collections, I found a vintage copy of former president Gamal Abdel Nasser's The Philosophy of the Revolution, an anthology of the best fiction and short stories from the Arab World, translated into English by the American University in Cairo Press, an encyclopedia of Egyptian documentary films shot until 1980, and old leaflets from the bygone era of cine-clubs.
The scarcity of outdoor areas in Cairo makes the book fair an ode to public space. Dozens of visitors, including families, visit to simply lounge on the grass or revel in walking outside among the books. Audio books and e-readers may have once posed a threat, but studies show the extinction of the book is nowhere near. For the next 10 days, Cairenes and visitors can immerse their souls and money in the enduring allure of the printed word.
The Cairo International Book Fair, Madinat Nasr, Cairo, until February 9. For information, see www.cairobookfair.org.eg