Reforms and Censorship

This year's International Book Fair has chosen as its motto "The Impact of the Arab Renaissance and Opportunities for Reforms." Some 610 publishers from 25 countries are taking part in this sales showcase. Mona Naggar reports

This year's International Book Fair in Cairo, which runs from 26 January to February 8, has chosen as its motto "The Impact of the Arab Renaissance and Opportunities for Reforms." Some 610 publishers from 25 countries are taking part in this sales showcase. Mona Naggar reports from Cairo

photo: Markus Kirchgessner
Political pressure from abroad plays a role in the selection of a theme for the fair, say analysts

​​Egyptian writer Yahya Ibrahim, who lives in Paris, planned his visit back home to coincide with the book fair. For him, as for many other Arab writers and intellectuals, the book fair in Cairo is an important cultural event:

"Of course I buy books here. I get an overview of what new books have come out and also promote my latest novel. The book fair is a great place to meet up with friends who are now living all over the world. It's a cultural festival."

The mild spring-like temperatures attract thousands of Egyptians each day to the enormous fair grounds in the Nasr City district. The atmosphere here is almost like a folk festival: families relax with picnic lunches on the small lawns, stands sell Döner and Falafel; music, shrill computer games and Koran recitations stream out of the many tents set up next to the sales halls. There's something for everyone here.

This year's supporting program focuses on "The Impact of the Arab Renaissance and Opportunities for Reforms." Participating in discussion panels on this topic are such prominent figures as philosophy professor Hassan Hanafi and the moderate Islamist Abu al-Ula Madi.

Sayyid Mahmud, features writer for the Egyptian daily paper al-Ahram comments: "The selection of a theme for the fair must be seen in the context of the current political discussions taking place in Egypt. Pressure from abroad, especially from the USA, also plays a role. The motto represents an effort to link the Arab Renaissance, sparked 200 years ago when Muhammad Ali seized power as governor of Egypt, with the current debate on reforms."

Censorship once again in evidence

The major topic of conversation among the Arab publishers during the first days of the book fair is the arbitrariness of the Egyptian censors. Although the fair's organizers deny any involvement, publishers complain that books have been confiscated.

The Syrian publishing house Dar Ward is not permitted to sell certain titles by Tahar Ben Jelloun and Paolo Coelho. Centre Culturel Arabe publishers (Beirut/Casablanca) reports that most of its books by Nasr Hamid Abu Zaid have been seized.

A representative from the As-Saqi publishing company (Beirut/London) also commented on books being confiscated. Features writer Sayyid Mahmud remarks:

"The problem is that neither I as culture editor nor the publishers can say who is behind these seizures. Was it security officials? Or perhaps the ministry of information? The books are simply missing from the shipments, and the publisher does not receive any notification about the retained goods. He therefore has no evidence and cannot go to court with his complaint."

It is questionable whether the Arab Publishers' Association will represent the interests of its members in this matter. The experiences of recent years leave most of the affected publishers pessimistic. After all, they never got the books back that were confiscated at past book fairs either.

Germany guest of honor in 2006?

Already before the opening of this year's book fair in Cairo, there was a rumor circulating that Germany would be the next guest country. The organizers denied such plans.

However, at the German-Arab symposium, the president of the Frankfurt Book Fair, Volker Neumann, described this idea as a great challenge. An explanation can be expected in the coming months of whether Germany will perhaps be guest country at the Cairo Book Fair after all, in 2006 or 2007.

This year, Germany is represented with a joint stand run by Deutsche Welle, the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Goethe Institute. The walls of the stand display German works of fiction, natural science titles, children's books and school textbooks.

These are intended to entice Arab publishers to commission translations into Arabic.

Even though Arab literature was the focus of last year's Frankfurt Book Fair, however, representatives from the German publishing industry still show little interest in the Arab book market. One reason for this was evident from the panel discussion the Goethe Institute organized for Arab publishers: the perceived lack of professionalism on their part, shown, for example, by the fact that very few provide any information on their books in one of the European languages.

Mona Naggar

© 2005

Translation from German: Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

Cairo International Book Fair