There was an ad-hoc quality to this year’s Cairo International Book Fair — which ran from Jan. 22-24 and Jan. 27-Feb. 6 — as if it had been thrown together at the last possible moment. The fairgrounds’ permanent buildings, which were torn down more than a year ago to make way for new ones, were replaced by tents. Many areas were not ready on the first three days of the fair, and many posters blew down soon after they were put up, ruined by the light rains, strong winds, and dust.
In several areas, books were open to the elements.
Even on days when the weather improved, crowds remained small compared to previous years. Generally, around 2 million have crowded onto the Nasr City fairgrounds, making the Egyptian fair the second largest in the world, after Frankfurt. But in 2012, publishers and booth-workers estimated that crowds were between 40 to 60 percent less than in previous years.
The fair’s popular and iconic Cultural Cafe, which was closed without explanation at the 2009 fair, was open. However, crowds were far smaller crowds and the cafe was only open until 7 p.m. Nevine Mohammed, a server at the cafe who said she’s been working the fair for ten years, didn’t understand the lack of cafe-goers.
The cafe had seen “maybe one quarter of the people” that visited in previous years, she said.
Ahmed Talaat, from the Lebanese publishing house Hasheet Antawan (books pictured), said that he’d been coming to the fair for eight years. Previous years, he said he’d sold up to 300 books a day. This year, it was more like 25-30. He felt that this year, far fewer people had come from abroad to attend the Cairo fair.
The tidiest and most regulated area of the fair was the giant Saudi hall. Inside, there were fewer books than in other areas, but there were quite a few religious texts on sale. There was also a children’s area, an art exhibition, discussions, and free paper hats.
Michael Ishaq, a Christian bookseller, was tremendously enthusiastic about the 2012 fair. He said that he estimated there were about half as many fair-goers as in previous years, but this didn’t daunt him. He added that, even though many fair-goers asked for books about revolution, he was mostly selling the New Testament and a film about the life of Jesus. What was really different about this year, Ishaq said, was that “more Muslims are coming to ask about” Christianity and Christian books.
After the revolution, he said, “Muslims became more open to know about Christianity, and more curious.” This was “not great,” he said. “It’s very great.”
The American University in Cairo Press saved money in 2012 by having a much smaller presence at the fair, focusing greater efforts on their upcoming “Tahrir Book Fair,” set for March. AUCP Sales and marketing manager Atef el-Hoteiby said that he counted the “real” start of the Cairo book fair as January 27, and that things picked up somewhat after that. However, Balsam Saad, owner of Dar al-Balsam children’s publishing house, said that depended on what hall you were in.
For her, she said, business picked up, but “barely.”
El-Hoteiby had participated in 30 years of Cairo book fairs, he said, and would characterize the 2012 fair as having “fewer people, less sales, and revolution books.”
Despite low attendance, families with small children were still a major portion of fair-goers. However, few booksellers named children’s books among their top sellers. Most named history books, books about Islam or science, or “revolution” books.
Tunisia was the guest of honor at this year’s fair, and its pavilion was a strong attraction for those who did make their way to the fair. Their display presence was small and tucked away in a building near the back entrance, but Tijane Zayed, who was working at the stand, was exuberant about Egyptian visitors. Most didn’t come looking for Tunisian books, he admitted. “Most people are looking for the revolution.”
Many came, for instance, to take their photo alongside a poster of Tunisian poet Abu al-Qassim al-Shabbi (1909-1934), who composed the moving “To the Tyrants of the World” and “If the People Choose to Live One Day.” Indeed, one of the major occupations of the fair seemed to be taking one’s photo alongside the images from Tahrir, with most picture-takers inserting themselves into the iconic photos.
The low attendance hasn’t just affected the fair: Karam Youssef, owner of the Kotob Khan bookshop in New Ma’adi, said that she had few customers at her store before January 25, and a trickle after.