The 39th Cairo International Book Fair has wrapped up its two-week run, and organizers say its two million visitors make it the world's largest book fair. Scholars, students and book worms flock to the International Fair Ground, and the meager ticket cost also brings low-income families more likely to buy ice cream and balloons than books. Karem Sa'id reports for VOA from Cairo.
Families crowded the gardens and food court area of the fair ground in Medinat Nasr during the Cairo International Book Fair. The fair's entry cost of about 25 cents makes this a cultural event, beyond the books.
Fair Vice President Wahid Abdel Mageed said, although more business is done at other, better known book fairs, the Cairo event has a larger turnout, and is vital to Egyptians hungry for books.
"We are very poor in our book markets," said Wahid Abdel Mageed. "It is difficult for a lot of people to reach the book in ordinary days. So, it is a big chance for people, especially outside Cairo, to come to this book fair yearly, and to obtain many books, maybe for all the year, because it is difficult for them to reach the few book markets or book centers, which are centered in Cairo and very few places outside Cairo."
Bookstores and publishing houses from Egypt, the Arab region and beyond set up stalls in more than 12 large halls. Here, Egyptian scholars look for hard-to-find books, and people living outside the capital can stock up on reading materials for the entire year. A teacher named Muhammed traveled nearly two hours to buy books.
"I am coming to see the books that are useful to me, like religious books," he said. "And I will buy them. There are specific things that I look for, and I get an idea, and, whatever is good, I will buy - religious books, political books, like that."
The halls were filled mostly with younger Egyptians, often looking for religious books and tapes of sermons and Koranic recitation. Islam Kamel, a student from the low-income neighborhood of Shoubra, like many visitors, sought textbooks that might help him with his schoolwork.
"I am looking here for books that might be useful for me in my studies," he said. "Since I study at the faculty of engineering, I look for books that could be used as reference books in my studies, that could be beneficial for me at the faculty. And, sometimes also, I look for religious books that I like to buy.
A young political science graduate named Manel says the fair is improving.
"The fair is very good," said Manel. "It has almost everything. This is the 39th fair, but I have been about five times. This time it is much more organized. It is quieter, and it is not as busy as all the other times."
Foreigners also attended the fair. An American visitor and photojournalist named Theresa came expecting a clearer presentation of newly published work.
"The condition of some of the books I did not find to be in really good condition, if we are comparing it with some book fairs that we have been to before in Europe or in the States," said Theresa. "They use the opportunity in book fairs to present their latest books. And I think that, on that part, is kind of a disappointment."
Egyptian publishers did offer several new books at the fair, including Chicago, the latest offering by the author of the novel The Yacoubian Building, Alaa al-Aswani.
In other cases, publishers chose to showcase books published earlier, such as the novel Zayni Barakat, written by one of Egypt's most celebrated novelists, Gamel al-Ghitany.
The book has been translated into 31 languages and was republished last year by the American University in Cairo Press. The novel considers both the defeat of the Mamlukes, who ruled Egypt until the 16th Century and Egypt's defeat by Israel in 1967.
Al-Ghitany was on hand Thursday to sign copies of the book:
"I wrote this book in 1968 to 1969, and the first English publishing it was in 1986, by Penguin Viking books," said Gamel al-Ghitany. "This novel now ... When I wrote it in 1969 it was very revolutionary. Opened new roads for the Arabic novel. Now it is classical."
Al-Ghitany said the American University Press will publish his latest book a few days after the fair is over.
Fair organizer Abdel Mageed says the Cairo book fair is not about big business or the latest releases. The fair's impact on the country's reading public, he says, is enormous.
"I think this book fair is the most important factor in widening the readership in Egypt," he said. "This annual project of reading for all played a big role in widening the readership in Egypt, in spite of the increasing prices of the books, which constitute a problem for more than half of the population. But the reduction of these prices in the book fair helped people to obtain books in reduced prices."
And, the used book section was among the most crowded areas of the fair.