Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

This week I met the oldest writer in the world. True, the statue of the "Seated Scribe" in Room 42 of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo doesn't give interviews. He prefers to gaze dreamily out of dark obsidian eyes in search of inspiration – as he has done for 4,500 years. But he does offer a haunting reminder that the written word has survived, and thrived, in Egypt almost longer than anywhere else on earth; the sole predecessor being Iraq.

At the Cairo Book Fair, where the managers – the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO) – claim 1.5 million visitors each year, works by the successors to that scribe fill a dozen large pavilions spread out over a vast site in Nasr City. From the sweet little train that trundles past the halls to the mighty mosque in one corner and the prominent role of religious publishers, no one could mistake a spell at this fair for a genteel trip to Edinburgh or Hay. Especially not over the past week, when demonstrations in support of the Palestinians who flooded through the border breach in Gaza have reached the grounds of the Fair itself.

In Egypt, no one bothers to build a wall of separation between the state of the arts and the state of the nation. "Culture is a risk," the accomplished and long-serving culture minister Farouk Hosny – a strong candidate to become Unesco's next director – told us in an interview. "It is itself an adventure". No Egyptian writer would dispute that.

I had joined UK publishers on a mission to discuss ways to overcome the yawning gulf between European and Egyptian literary norms. Often, after baffled wrangles over rights sales or statistics, it felt as if the only shared ground lay in the damp weather. Problems of piracy persist, embodied when I met my colleague Robert Fisk at a new branch of the stylish bookstore, Diwan. He had flown in from Beirut not only to launch a book but to track down a forger who had produced – in Arabic – an entire counterfeit work under his name.

As for official intervention in the arts, the Egyptian scene can feel as labyrinthine as the medieval maze of Khan el-Khalili (the inspiration of Cairo's beloved Nobel laureate, Naguib Mahfouz). Opposition newspapers thrive; the cinema hit just now is Youssef Chahine's It's Chaos, which exposes police brutality; writers and bloggers dare to publish – and be damned. Emergency laws, and the enforcement role of Al Azhar University in religion, check theoretical freedoms with practical controls. An anti-clerical blogger, "Kareem Amer", went to jail for four years. At a British Council party, viewpoints ranged from the leading poet who boycotts the book fair in disgust at the Islamist presence to the charming young woman who edits the English website of the ubiquitous Muslim Brotherhood.

In spite of every obstacle, from clerical oversight to 35 per cent illiteracy, successes emerge. The culture ministry's translation programme has put 1,000 foreign works from 27 languages into Egyptian circulation. In the private sector, the intrepid publisher Merit (founded by Mohamed Hashem) has endured official wrath, but struck gold with Alaa Al Aswany's The Yacoubian Building. Its massive sales raised literary hopes all over Cairo. Not far behind as a sensation is Khaled Al Khamissi's Taxi: 58 eye-opening fictional monologues from Cairo's gabby cabbies. Aflame Books will publish it in English soon, while Al Aswany's new novel, Chicago, arrives here later in the year.

The London Book Fair in April – where the Arab world will be guest of honour – will create a golden chance to build more bridges. British publishers should take it. Forget the pomp of pharaohs and priests, ancient or modern. They owe it to that serenely patient scribe, cross-legged in Room 42.

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