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Published on February 3, 2005

Obscured by domestic clouds

How does one quantify a people's disposition to reading? Considering the notorious lack of statistics on just how many of us in Egypt have retained, or cultivated, the habit of befriending a book, an obvious avenue leading to some answers, one might easily suspect, would be that massive yearly occurrence, the Cairo International Book Fair -- this year celebrating its 37th round. With headlines splashing news pages on this year's unprecedented public attendance, one may even go as far as toy with the notion that the light has finally shone upon an intellectual grass-roots revolution. Buy your 50- piastre entrance through the lotus arches leading into the Fair Grounds, however, and what you get is what you see: a picnic in the sun.

The first sight to greet a number of Asian tourists in search of cheap dictionaries was a little yellow train, which left them wondering if they had stood at the correct bag-check queue. Considering the absence of geographical indications, and the air of festive release hovering around families attracted by Chinese-made plastic toys on stands selling "anything for 2.50LE", questioning if one was at the right fair seemed in no way redundant. The answer came in the form of a sporadic sight this year: white plastic bags of purchased books. Hands, in general, were conspicuously free from the burden of volumes to carry back home -- particularly adult hands. Fayqa Adel, mother of three schoolchildren, perceived buying books for herself a luxury that parental sacrifice would not allow if her children were to take any colouring books home. "Besides, I have neither the time, nor the 'mind', to read -- even if I could afford to, which I cannot," she replied with a smile that left no doubt as to her perfect contentment with her daughters doing all the family reading.

As one strolls by the pavilions, this year's notably reduced crowds bringing both relief and concern, a new phenomenon beckons for attention -- dot.coms. Although in recent years countless publications addressing the world of computers and Internet had understandably elbowed their place onto the shelves, this year the plot thickens: one may conservatively estimate that a good 25 per cent of the display space is occupied by PC hardware, while an even larger amount of colourful banners promoting the products of different Web sites vie for the public's attention. "I'm just not going to waste my time reading. Read what? It's the Internet's turn now," reflected accountant Magdi Abdel-Sattar, as he paid for his brand new keyboard. But while this fair is dedicated to books, and as Bill Gates personally inaugurated the new Microsoft Building at the Smart Village this very week, one wonders why a separate exhibit for information technology was never considered, at least in an effort to safeguard the culture of publications. Perhaps the very reason for blurring the lines, one cannot help but ponder, is to ensure a decent crowd at the Book Fair.

As a fanfare erupted in the largest tent designed for cultural activities on the fringe of the festival, many left their seats around the much-enlarged restauration area and headed for the Circus performance about to begin. The smaller tents never seemed to fill up quite as readily -- among this year's evident penchant for all things frivolous, a crowd gathering around a young poet for the mere pleasure of hearing his recently-published verses may even have seemed a trifle suspicious. "It is not the place for such things," contends Amr Salama, a middle-aged secondary school teacher. "I enjoy very much a quiet hall with intellectual debate but is this what we get here? Why don't they move the [fringe] activities where those who want them can enjoy them? What is the point of this?" he shrugs, pointing to the empty chairs filling the small, dreary interior of the Poets' Encounter tent.

Not all sights were disheartening however. Faring better than all the rest, as one has come to expect based on previous Book Fair experiences, were the Sour Al-Ezbekiya stalls for second hand books. This is where bookworms are still to be located, stacking novels, schoolbooks and magazines in endless piles. Eighteen-year-old Samah Ghanem, train-bound home to Zagazig, estimated she could cut a deal with the vendor if she paid for her books by the kilo. Without condescending to answer, he yelled for his colleague to dig out an old film poster he could not locate in his stash. The crowd is more focused around this sea of used fiction, yet no corner of the grounds is as action-packed as The Arena, venue of this year's "surprise", according to the flyers scattered on the pavements.

From tableware to feathered lingerie, the sale is indeed big, with 50 per cent off any and all domestic items on display under the immense dome shading throngs of buyers from the winter sun. Scheduled to run from 26 January - 8 February, and coinciding with the fair's timing to the day, this year's "surprise" is not a pleasant one by a long shot -- nor are the price tags on publications in the majority of cases.

As one leaves the grounds, one cannot help but wonder, as did Salama, what the point really is. Not that the public can be held to account for the little interest it exhibits in the intended purpose of the fair -- presumably the dissemination of ideas through the printed word. After all, how many public spaces are there in the city to be accessed for the meagre fee of a half pound?



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