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  • Disciplinary Divergences:Problematizing the Field of Arabic Literature
  • Mara Naaman (bio)

Every January, the Cairo International Book Fair is held in a sixty-six-thousand-square-meter venue in Nasr City on the outskirts of Cairo.1 Echoing in its volume the world fairs of decades past, the event is a modern phantasmagoria; for not only do hundreds of publishers attend (most of whom are from around the Middle East) but close to two million Egyptians flood the fair grounds to browse, buy, and take in the spectacle. Unlike book fairs in other parts of the world, which are mostly trade events, the Cairo book fair is mainly a public event. There are food stands, tents with tea and nargela, thousands of used books from the Azbakiya market, stalls with cassettes, video games, and DVDs, technical books, religious literature, children's books, academic books, and so on. While most of the books are in Arabic, there are a number of European presses that attend (particularly from France, Italy, and Germany), exhibiting Arabic works in translation as well as any array of foreign language texts. Alongside the stalls each year there is an honored guest country that helps sponsor the event and is featured as part of many of the literary seminars, book signings, and cultural activities. The fair is the largest of its kind in the world, and the throngs of people milling about, eating, and buying books is exciting to witness and seems to suggest that the book as commodity fetish is alive and well in Egypt.2

Despite the general buzz surrounding the books and the millions of attendees browsing the displays, it is the view of many writers and journalists that the state of the Arabic book market, and of Cairo's literary scene more specifically, has deteriorated in recent years and is suffering from a kind of stagnation.3 While interest in the Arabic novel abroad has, by some measure, increased (the Arab world was the guest of honor at the 2008 London Book Fair and at the 2004 Frankfurt Book Fair), the state of the [End Page 446] Arab book market appears to be at something of a crossroads.4 One of the largest problems confronting the industry that publishers cite is the lack of more "professional channels" for book distribution.5 The Arab world does not have as of yet a protocol for distributing books in a systematic way within the region, forcing writers and academics to rely on periodicals and word of mouth for news of recently published works. In addition, piracy has become a common practice.6 Of the close to six thousand books published in Arabic in 2008 (primarily from publishing houses based in Egypt and Lebanon), most of them had print runs of only two to three thousand copies.7 In contrast, though of no surprise, the U.S. published roughly 560,000 books in 2008, with an average initial print run of five thousand, though that number is said to vary greatly depending on the work.8 Not only does Arabic book production constitute as little as a I.I percent share of the international market but the subject matter of these books, according to the 2003 United Nations Arab Human Development Report, is limited largely to religious themes (though reliable statistics on the industry are difficult to come by).9 Publishers in the region attribute the marginal status of the industry to the large role played by the state in overseeing book production and in censoring what gets published (incidentally, the state-run publisher, the General Egyptian Book Organization, manages the book fair). Whatever new life has been infused into the book industry, then, has come from the efforts of independent and private book publishers (e.g., in Egypt, Dār al-Sharqīyāt and Mirīt). Capitalizing on voices of the younger generation of Egyptian writers, many of the novels emerging from these houses depict frank and often critical portraits of what life is like for the poorer and middle classes in contemporary Egypt. Following their lead, one of Egypt's largest publishing houses, Dār al-Sharūq, agreed in 2008 to publish the debut...


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