Cairo International Book Fair 2024: Palestine a bestseller for Egyptian bookworms
Carrying big bags and suitcases, ready to fill their 2024 with plenty of reading material, huge crowds of people made their way to one of the most important events of the year, for not only Egyptians but Arab publishers and book enthusiasts worldwide — the Cairo International Book Fair.
Inaugurated in 1969, the January event is one of the oldest large-scale book fairs in the world, second only to Frankfurt, Germany.
This year marked its 55th edition, with 1,200 publishing houses from at least 70 countries participating.
While the internal economic situation impacted the number of attendees, publishers claim that the turnout was close to last year when at least 3.5 million people visited the fair.
"We aim to bring awareness to the cause and remind everyone who buys a book from us that they should support Palestine. As humans and as readers, we must stand in solidarity with Palestine"
Nader, a 47-year-old book lover told The New Arab that he has been coming to the fair almost every year since childhood.
Back then, he reveals, the book fair was located in the fairgrounds of Nasr City in eastern Cairo until it was moved in 2019 to the army-owned Egypt International Exhibitions Center.
“The important thing about the fair is the presence of Arab publications from across the region,” Nader explained. “While Egyptian publications are available during the whole year at any bookstore, at the fair you can find the latest publications from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon… which are completely different books.”
This year, he was searching for academic publications that are often difficult to find in regular bookstores. Many others come to the Cairo International Book Fair to look for religious books, as it contains probably one of the largest religious book sections in the world.
Religious books related to Islam, Islamic history and jurisprudence are the most popular items at the book fair. They take up almost every hall and at least a quarter of all the books displayed. Due to their abundance and reduced prices, readers from all around the world, specifically from Asian Muslim-majority countries, come to Egypt solely to attend this book fair.
Apart from religious books, personal development books' sales have increased, as well as the usual genres of romance fiction novels and crime stories.
However, what made this year's book fair remarkable is the notable presence of Palestine.
Palestine: Omnipresent in Cairo
Palestinian authors and titles related to Palestine dominated the highlights section of almost every book stand. At times, displays of solidarity with Palestine even appeared on the bags, banners, and book covers of publishing houses.
"The book fair this year coincided with the Israeli offensive in Gaza and Palestine," Rasha Al-Shahed, the founder of Insan Publishing House told The New Arab.
"Therefore we thought it was important to do something to support Palestine. We have Palestine-related bookmarks, notebooks, book holders and more.
"The most notable item we have is the Palestinian flag with the hashtag 'Insan supports Palestine' on all new book covers. Insan is the name of our publishing house, but it also means human in Arabic," Rasha added.
"We aim to bring awareness to the cause and remind everyone who buys a book from us that they should support Palestine. As humans and as readers, we must stand in solidarity with Palestine."
Insan’s most sold books are those about recent Palestinian history and the history of Zionism.
As Rasha was looking for her current best-seller, World Zionism or Al-Sahyunia Al-Aalamia by Abbas Mahmoud Al-Aqqad, she realised it had sold out. This was the third time it had sold out in four days at the book fair. "This happens a lot, the book gets sold out and we have to bring more copies from the printing house," explains Rasha.
However, there have been controversies over certain books related to Palestine in previous editions of the Cairo International Book Fair.
Since 2020, the Tanmiya (Development) publishing house has not been present at the fair. This is due to its founder, Khaled Lofty, being sentenced to five years in prison by a military court for charges of divulging military secrets and spreading false news after publishing the book The Angel: The Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel. The book discussed the role of Egyptian spy Marwan Ashraf in ensuring Israel's victory during the 1973 war.
Rahma Samy, a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression (AFTE), says that this year four publishing houses, including Tanmiya, were excluded from the fair without clear explanations or advance notifications.
Mohamed El-Baaly, founder of Sefsafa Culture and Publishing, states that there are no rules — they do not know if they will be excluded next. There are no redlines so publishers don't know about banned subjects.
In addition to these concerns, publishers are also impacted by the financial situation in the country, which is driving inflation to historical levels.
Historic inflation begins to hurt publishers in Cairo: 'People are buying less'
In 2023, annual inflation in Egypt reached its all-time highest, 39.7% in August. While a recent BMI report projects this figure to reduce to 26.7% in 2024, the report predicts that Egypt's inflation will still be the highest in the region until 2028.
This economic environment is hurting all Egyptians, including book publishers.
Mohamed El-Baaly told The New Arab that the price of printing books has increased drastically. In 2015, a tonne of paper cost 8,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP). In 2024, it costs 60,000 EGP.
"When people find out the prices, their faces drop. Books are no longer 30 or 50 EGP, now they are up to 900!" Mohamed exclaimed.
Ferida, an 18-year-old student at Cairo University, went to the fair with her dad, as she does every year. This year, her bag was emptier than usual. “The prices are too high this year, especially the prices of English books, so I'm buying less."
English books are usually imported, and their price of around 1,155-1,540 EGP is too expensive for the average Egyptian, with the country's minimum wage currently at 3,500 EGP.
“People are buying less. Those who used to come and buy three or four books now buy one or two,” says Neveen El-Tohamy, Executive Manager at Kayan Publishing. “Despite the situation, the book fair is massive, a lot of people are coming and we are doing quite well, thank God,” she reassures.
For Neveen, the fact that millions of people are still filling the halls of this year’s book fair despite the odds shows just how important the book fair and books, in general, are for Egyptians. This engrained love for reading and culture, dating back centuries, also explains why the second-largest book fair in the entire world is located in Egypt.
“The Arab people have been a cultivated and cultured people for centuries. We were one of the first people to print and read, way before the European countries. This tradition has been passed on to new generations. Naturally, we're one of the biggest book fairs in the world."
Bianca Carrera is a freelance writer and analyst specialising in Middle Eastern and North African politics and society at Sciences Po Paris. She has written for Al Jazeera, The New Arab, Al-Quds Al-Araby, EU Observer and others. She is based between Spain, Morocco and Egypt
Follow her on Twitter: @biancacarrera25