Live from the Cairo book fair

Two dispatches from the Cairo book fair, originally published on the Prospect website. I was there as the guest of the British Council; it was my first time in Egypt.


The UK is currently guest of honour at the Cairo international book fair this year, and I had expected the press corps to be out in some kind of force. In fact, as far as the British fourth estate is concerned, it seems to be pretty much me, courtesy of the flawless hospitality of the British Council. There are, however, an awful lot of other people here. Cairo may not have the heft in the trade of the big three book fairs —London, Frankfurt and Bologna—but it is a massive public event. When I arrived, yesterday, around half an hour before it opened, there were people literally beating at the doors: an eager mob of bibliophiles rocking the wrought-iron gates backwards and forwards in their excitement at the inexpensive Arabic-language riches lying within. They’re expecting around two million visitors here during the course of the fortnight, which is quite something in a country where adult literacy is less than 60 per cent.

Then again, this is very much an expanding market. Along with Lebanon and the Emirates, Cairo is one of the crucial portals for exchange between English and Arabic literary cultures, as well as a cosmopolitan, artistically confident place in its own right. Despite big problems with piracy, the market for English books translated into Arabic is growing at around 10 per cent a year, while several recent initiatives have put some serious money and expertise behind the project of exchange. A lot of fuss was made about the founding of Kalima last year; a well-funded initiative devoted to bringing quality foreign books into Arabic. The consensus here, though, seems to be that their walk hasn’t proved quite as impressive as their talk, and the real buzz surrounds a number of other, more pragmatic publishing ventures.

Most of the events I’ve attended thus far have had a civilised, coffee-shop atmosphere, but with an extreme mix of attendees, in terms of sex, age and nationality. Some of the best questions yesterday came from several women clad in full niqabs, who offered confident queries in lightly-accented English during a panel discussion on translation. What is the role of cinema in perpetuating Orientalist mis-readings of the Arab world? Is misinterpretation inevitable in translation between reading cultures largely ignorant of one another? ”You see,” the author Adhaf Soueif (perhaps best known for her 1999 novel The Map of Love ) told me later, “these women are not cowed, they are asking questions, they are taking part in intellectual life.” Would they still be participating in a discussion like this if we were, say, in Saudi Arabia? “Yes they would, except that they’d be asking via a television screen from a different room.”

Adhaf is one of the two authors I’ve interviewed so far, the other being Ben Okri (winner of the 1991 Booker prize for The Famished Road), who has also been speaking about translation and the ways in which literature draws inspiration from other cultures. Both he and Adhaf know more about this than most, having grown up linguistically displaced from their countries of birth: Adhaf was born in Egypt but educated with English as her “literary language” at her schools in Egypt and England; Ben is Nigerian, but spent his early childhood in London, and was educated within the British literary tradition even after he returned to Nigeria at the age of seven.

Reading Jane Austen in Lagos was, Ben recalled, a bizarre imaginative experience: trying to conjure this strange other world of tea, snow and bonnets, of things he had never seen. Yet it was not a legacy or an education he resented; rather, he saw it as a kind of extreme training for the imagination, an emblem of the mental transformations inherent in any act of reading. Of everyone I met, he was also the most radical in his claims for the necessity not just of translation but of mutual inspiration between cultures: “A literature belongs to a people; but, more importantly, to the world.” There was too much rigidity, he thought, in current notions of national literatures.

This was something Ahdaf more cautiously echoed, citing the ways in which lazy and inaccurate depictions of a foreign culture (Robert Stone’s Damascus Gate was one example) become extremely influential because they are convenient reinforcements of existing assumptions; such books can actually damage inter-cultural communication and engagement. Ben, in response, took the example of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: a hugely problematic book for African authors in its mixing of literary brilliance and the worst kind of colonial assumptions. In the end, he argued, such writing was better done than left undone, because of both its cumulative enabling effect within a literature and language, and because setting down even the most morally objectionable of assumptions opens them to scrutiny. Neither readers nor literature, in other words, are passive; and while the best writing, like Conrad’s, has artistic greatness despite its limitations, the worst is still an attempt worth making, and learning from.

Everyone was agreed, anyway, that—as Ahdaf put it—”the richer a culture is, the more porous its boundaries”; and that there was an insidious insularity to much of British literary culture, and its tendency to take refuge in false polarities and generic short-cuts. Names like “Martin Amis” were then mentioned, and it turned out that Ahdaf had been invited—and had refused—to speak alongside him at the “terrorism and literature” debate I attended in Manchester way back in 2007, and wrote about on this blog. Marina Warner, also speaking at the festival, delivered a blisteringly concise broadside along similar lines against Ian McEwan’s Saturday (“a disgraceful book, a vain book; we’ve lost a lot of our intellectuals to the wrong side”).


As yesterday’s posting from warm (ish), dusty (very) Cairo concluded, I found a theme emerging: a certain parochialism among the British reading, writing and publishing classes. Since then, two anecdotes have come to my aid in spelling out what this means.

First, from the author Jamal Mahjoub. London-born to an English mother and Sudanese father, he grew up in England and Sudan and is most recently the author of Travelling with Djinns (2003) and The Drift Latitudes (2006). He recounted his experience when Travelling with Djinns was initially rejected by a certain London publishing house. Although Jamal was already the author of four well-regarded novels, all written in English and published in Britain, an editor there explained to him that she already had four authors on her list with exotic names, and she hoped he understood that she couldn’t really go to her sales and marketing department and ask them to put their money behind a fifth author “with a name like Jamal Mahjoub.”

The book was subsequently published by Chatto, and all was well. The real sticking point of the story for Jamal, though, was not so much its absurdity as the fact that this editor assumed that he would be sympathetic towards her decision, and would agree that it was only logical and reasonable: this was just the way the book world works, and that was that.

It’s something Jamal related to larger shifts in the book industry over the last few decades: its move from being a cottage industry to a multinational one, run along more-or-less unfettered commercial lines, complete with the expectation of profit margins equal to those of any other commodities industry. This, in turn, means large amounts of money are paid to (and are made by) a small number of writers and brands, while those outside that category ceasing to exist as “logical” business propositions, or only exist subject to the stringent exigencies of the marketplace.

My second anecdote comes from the very opposite place in publishing: poetry. After a lively panel session on the state of contemporary British poetry (“robust” was the general verdict, despite what you might read elsewhere), I was chatting to the poet Paul Farley—most recently the author of Tramp in Flames (2006) and a past winner of the Forward Prize and the Whitbread Poetry Award—about the differences between discussing poetry in front of a British audience and in front of the very mixed Arabic audience he had just been addressing.

As part of his answer he told me about a time, a few years ago, when he and a number of other “young British poets” were speaking at the LRB cafe in Bloomsbury. During the discussion, a female member of the audience stood up and began to denounce them for the fact that they were all English, white and middle class. Paul, whose background is in any case working class, found this both unhelpful and irritating. It was an argument that replaced the discussion of poetry with a factional debate about the rights and wrongs of certain abstract themes.

By contrast, the Cairo discussion was about poetry’s place in the world: does it matter; what can and should poets be doing and saying; which poets and poems are most-liked and most valuable? It was refreshing, he said, to talk directly about writing in a context which, although charged intensely with politics (there was a minute’s silence for the “1300 martyrs of Gaza” before the evening poetry reading), had no interest in paying lip-service to ideas like legitimacy or diversity. It was all about what was said and meant, and how this might be a force for change or understanding.

What do the rejection of a novel and heckling at a poetry reading have in common? In both cases, the shared theme was a narrowness to the values of the UK literary scene, and indeed to the mainstream of global English-language literature. A vital debate about exactly what is being said, and can and should be said, in novels and poetry is being stifled by the consensus that—between the reality of commercial imperatives and the already-won battle of political correctness—there’s nothing much of real social import to be debated any more in books.

This is why it’s so useful for authors as well as publishers and punters to come to a place like Cairo and talk about books. As Jamal put it, “intellectually speaking, literature has lost ground; the outside wrote in, but the inside did not respond.” And a response from the inside will only be worth having if it’s individual rather than thematic or tokenistic: if it’s about genuine readings of other authors and cultures and languages; and if it’s not so wrapped up in internal squabbles that it forgets there’s an entire world out there.