Boyd Tonkin: Free thinkers bloom in the desert

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Mohammed Hashem runs Merit Publishers in Cairo. As an utterly fearless promoter of the best new writing in Egypt and beyond, he has some resounding coups to his credit. Merit first published Alaa Al Aswany, whose Chicago – successor to the world-seducing The Yacoubian Building – just won a poll as the best-loved novel in the UAE.

These days, Hashem mixes cutting-edge fiction with a growing range of "green" titles and children's books committed, he tells me through an interpreter, to a "rational and non-racist" world-view. I ask if this uncrushable scrapper with censors and clerics has managed to stay out of court lately. "I'm never out of court!" Which gives Merit more grief, the Egyptian state or religious authorities? Mohammed – who understands more English than he speaks – merrily holds up two fingers.

He's constantly distracted by well-wishers – a good sign for the health of the Fair as a burgeoning intellectual market-place. Hashem does worry that the explosion of state-run literary patronage in the Gulf could steal the thunder of free-standing (and free-thinking) entrepreneurs such as Merit. It would be satisfying to think that public and private enterprise can work in tandem to nurture the Arab book. That depends on the lavish official initiatives having the nous to match their depth of pocket with breadth of vision.

The omens look promising so far. I attended the prize-giving of the Sheikh Zayed book awards, with cheques across nine categories that dwarf other honours just as the Emirates Palace – where it took place – does other hotels. Impressively, the literature award (750,000 dirhams, or £125,000) went to another dauntless Cairene, Gamal Al Ghitani, for his new novel Ren. Ever since he was jailed in the 1960s for opposing Nasser's police state, Al Ghitani has twin-tracked landmark historical fiction exploring the roots of today's Egypt with courageous dissenting journalism. Next month, Arabia Books in the UK will issue his The Zaferani Files.

A couple of days earlier, also in Abu Dhabi, the second International Prize for Arabic Fiction – the "Arabic Booker" – had confirmed that the past illuminates the present in these parts. Its winner was Egyptian writer Youssef Ziedan, whose Beelzebub returns to the fifth century AD, and the violent imposition of orthodoxy – Christian, in this case – on a tolerant local pluralism. No prizes for spotting modern parallels.

As Abu Dhabi works to entrench its emerging niche as the emirate for brains rather than bling, a degree of scepticism will – rightly – shadow its endeavours. Of course, a grand programme of top-down enlightenment pursued by a pro-Western oil state will always have a strategic dimension when militant Iran lies just across the Gulf. But I can see abundant evidence of good faith as well as high hopes. Keep watching this – increasingly fertile – space.

P.S.Classics and reprint lists have grown into one of the unheralded triumphs of British publishing, with new outfits joining the precious treasure-houses curated by Penguin and Oxford. HarperCollins has even just released a black-coated stash of vintage erotica, from Fanny Hill and My Secret Life to Emmanuelle. Add your own jokes about express delivery to the Home Secretary's constituency office. Now comes a covetable set of five hardbacks from Penguin, which reproduce the first-edition designs of Raymond Chandler's masterworks from The Big Sleep to The Long Goodbye. Back in 1939, Hamish Hamilton plugged new kid Chandler as a rival to Dashiel Hammett and James Cain, destined to "duplicate" their popularity; they promised to "promote and advertise" him hard. Plus ça change? If only: these grim days, publishers hardly advertise.

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