Attending the Cairo Book Fair for the First Time

For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to go to the Cairo Book Fair. But there was a little problem. I was always thousands of miles away in England. I have known about the fair since I was a young girl. My friends and relatives in Egypt would call me and tell me all about the books they perused and bought.

I have been a bookaholic since I learned how to read, and browsing through thousands of bookshelves is part of the fun. So I always felt quite sad that I couldn’t be in Egypt during the months of January and February when the fair is usually held. And so a longing cultivated inside me for many years, waiting for the day I could finally attend.

You can guess then, that last year, my first winter in Egypt, I looked forward to the book fair quite fervently. And you can guess how disappointed I was that it was canceled, not postponed till later in the year, due to the political climate in Cairo, when everything was canceled, even flights at Cairo International Airport. I will never forget how empty and quiet the sky looked on the night of January 28–a sky that was usually filled with activity every minute as planes made their descent on the lit runway.

The Cairo Book Fair is considered the oldest and largest of its kind in the Arab world. It is the second largest in the world after the Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany. This year marked its forty-third year; the year we were both finally destined to meet. Located on the grounds of the Cairo International Fair in Nasr City, there is parking in front of the grounds, where you pay the attendant seven pounds.

At the entrance, there is a ticket booth to buy your ticket to the fair–one Egyptian pound. Yes, one pound. That’s ten pence, British Sterling. I could now understand why it was so busy, filled with young children, high school students, university students, and adults like me, eager to get our hands on the books we wanted.

Although most of the makeshift tents sold Arabic books, the first enormous white tent that greeted me was where the English stalls were selling every topic you could think of in the English language. Held in the ‘Italian’ tent, I walked past it because I didn’t think English books would be sold in a tent with that name. After moving around the entire grounds of the fair, purchasing a few books from the AUC Press stall at the far end of the grounds, I had to ask for directions.

There were publishers from many parts of the world, such as Saudi Arabia, which had a grand tent of its own, Lebanon, Syria, America, and Britain. Some offered discounts on their books, from thirty percent to fifty percent. But some books were overpriced, especially if they had been shipped in from another country. There was a tent dedicated to books on Islam, available in Arabic, French, and English.

I was surprised at how many Malaysian and Indonesian students there were, all carrying bags of recently purchased books for their studies, most likely students from the nearby Al-Azhar university. I overheard conversations in English from British men on their phones. I also saw families from Libya and Syria and the Gulf browsing stalls. There were also British Pakistani men talking to each other about the books they had bought, carrying many bags in their hands. I also carried many bags–the more bags I held, the happier I felt, too. I loved the smell of new books, and the feel of their fresh pages and the creaking sound hardbacks make when you first open them.

But because of Cairo’s sandy weather today, my hands were quite grimy at the end of touching so many books. I could see that everyone was dusting their hands after picking up a book, just like I was doing. The smell of sand and the few grains that invaded my eyes did not put a damper on the feeling I had, however. I was thrilled that after all these years, I had finally made it to the most prominent fair in the region.

Cairo Book Fair
(Usually, Every Year at the End of January, Beginning of February.)
International Fair Grounds,
Nasr City

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