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Booksellers in revolution

By Trevor Naylor


The written word has always played its part in the spreading of revolutionary ideas and in the recording of historical events. Until the Internet, this was done principally by the bookshops of the world, nowhere more so than across the countries of Asia and the Middle East, where the humble corner bookshop sells not just books, but newspapers, magazines, stationery, and all manner of things to keep its daily customers up to date.

Often such stores have been places for the local intelligentsia to hang out, gossip, and ruminate on the events of the day, be they local or international. No wonder then that such places also attract the unwanted attention of government intrusion and censorship.

All the great centres of bookselling I have enjoyed working with have their stories and family histories to tell. Recounted during long pleasurable evenings over dinner, booksellers eager to record their own role in history and the ups and downs of their businesses.

Delhi, in particular Ansari Road and Connaught Place, teems with books and book people, the Hindu family bookshops that settled there after the terrible events of Partition, when the most exciting book capital in the world, Lahore, was ripped apart.

To go from one to the other was a joy, one day selling to the Indians and the next to the Pakistani families whose forebears used to have stores beside those now in Delhi.

In Lebanon, booksellers found a way to sell books as the city around them literally fell in pieces; Antranik Helvadjian somehow came to London and Frankfurt, with cash in hand, to pay his bills and ship new titles. Many publishers still have a sentimental side and such people continue to be honoured and supported.

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One country’s book trade which has not fully recovered from a Revolution is Iran, where the complete reversal by those events of everything it had known and its ongoing sense of isolation from the world has prevented the import of books and news from returning and thriving — a huge pity for its people, whose history with books is one of the world’s oldest.

During the Gulf War the booksellers in Kuwait kept their heads down and survived, while in Turkey the ups and downs of both the military and the Turkish currency have seen stores thrive, then barely survive, but they continue because it’s all they know.

I come then to Egypt, centre of Arabic publishing, the home of AUC Press for over fifty years, and a haven for readers and bookshops for hundreds of years. From the backstreets of Islamic Cairo to the glorious riverside in Luxor, intelligent and brilliant family booksellers have greeted the millions who live in or travel to the country.

Today they sit mostly waiting, surviving and finding ways to keep the sales ticking over and to pay their faithful staff. They watch the turmoil that surrounds them, hoping it will settle soon, for they know that the draw of Egypt is indeed eternal and things will come back. They know that because they, or their father, or indeed their father’s father (ask Fahdy Greiss at the Anglo-Egyptian Bookshop) saw it all before. Revolutions, wars, and terrorism mean it’s never certain what is round the corner here, but this is one trade that won’t be beaten by them.

The AUC Press has several stores, the biggest and most famous on the corner of Tahrir Square itself. Some days we are busy, some days we are closed, some days no one visits, but we know they will again. The thirst for knowledge is undiminished here. Most people are not directly involved in the events you see and read of. They just want a normal life; they wish to study and move forward. When that time returns the bookshops of Egypt will still be waiting.

Trevor Naylor is the Sales, Marketing, and Distribution Director at The American University in Cairo Press, Egypt. Oxford University Press is proud to distribute AUC Press titles in North and South America.

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Image credit: Alexandria, Egypt – November 21, 2010: Young Egyptians relax and work on a book themed bench, outside the famous Library of Alexandria. (c) 1001nights via iStockphoto.

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