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Publishers left scrambling after Cairo book fair cancelled

As tens of thousands of people converged on Tahrir Square in Cairo today in a peaceful demonstration that marked the eighth day of protests against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, news that the Cairo International Book Fair has been cancelled comes as no surprise. The CIBF, which last year pulled in close to 1.8 million visitors, was scheduled for Jan. 29–Feb. 8 in Nasr City. This year’s fair was to spotlight Chinese publishers.

Publishing Perspectives reports:

The Chinese delegation that had traveled to Egypt – bringing with it 248 publishers and 10,000 books – apparently left Cairo last Thursday. In all, some 630 publishers from 29 countries, including 17 in the Middle East, have been affected by the delay.

Ibrahim El Moallem, chairman of Dar El Shorouk, one of Egypt’s largest publishing houses and vice-president of the International Publishers Association (IPA) had already decided to boycott the opening of the fair on Saturday to protest the government’s stifling of freedom of expression. El Mouallem said in an official IPA communiqué that “participation in the Cairo Book Fair would be against its organizational pillars because the host country is experiencing a case of obvious hostility to publishers’ rights and the rights to knowledge and access to information.”

Unfortunately, a number of publishers had already shipped merchandise to the fairgrounds, and have had to abandon their books for the time being. “We don’t know if we’ll ever get the books back,” Salwa Gaspard of London’s Saqi Books told the publishing industry newsletter.

When the protests in Cairo first began, traditional media outlets outside the Middle East were slow to respond to the “crisis in Egypt” (as one broadcaster has since dubbed it). International audiences relied on social media and blogs for a near-steady stream of information, even as most ISPs in the country were shut down in the government’s vain hope of hampering protests. In a separate post, Publishing Perspectives recommends chasing Twitter and Facebook updates – or, “unreliable information, rumor and conjecture” – with a dose of context.

Contemporary, 21st-century Egypt has been reflected in several novels, such as Essam Youssef’s edgy drug chronicle A ¼ Gram and Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas Al Abd, or graphic novels, such as Metro, published by Dar al-Malameh, itself owned by blogger and activist Muhammad al-Sharqaw. Alaa Al Aswany has, in addition to writing several bestselling novels such as The Yacoubian Building and Chicago, has penned essay’s on the topic of Egypt’s history and its relationship (or lack thereof) to democracy, such as An Attempt to Understand the Causes of Cruelty.

But is recommending literature in a moment of crisis just the other side of publicizing books in a time of crisis (see our previous post on the subject here)? Not really. After all, books and literature are the world’s history-keepers; once the dust of revolution settles, they’re what’s left to remind us of what was and what could have been. It’s a sentiment it seems young Egyptians value as they do their best to protect libraries and museums even in the midst of political upheaval.

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