By the Book: Egyptian Protest and Protection

Article excerpt

While North America and Europe were dealing with the winter doldrums and unprecedented levels of snow, sleet, freezing rain, and general cloudiness, the 43rd Cairo International Book Fair (CIBR), which was scheduled for Jan. 29 to Feb. 8, should have been cause for jubilation. Sunny skies, temperatures in the mid-60s, and a trip to the largest book festival in the Middle East promised not only warmer weather but the opportunity to focus on Arabic literature and books from China, which was the featured country this year. What could go wrong?

As we now know, almost everything went wrong. The book fair, organized by Egypt's Ministry of Culture and the Egyptian General Book Organization, was set to be spread among 12 pavilions this year with 765 participating publishers from 28 countries, according to its website (www.cairobookfair.org). The last time the site was updated was Jan. 19. Among the planned events were seminars for publishers, book signings, certificates of recognition for Arab intellectuals, poetry readings, music performances, and even an exhibition on cartoon art. About 1.8 million people were expected to attend the 11-day event. Traditionally, book sales at the CIBR are brisk enough for vendors to justify exhibiting there.

But none of this happened. Instead, the fair was quickly abandoned as Egyptian citizens marched in protest of the Mubarak government. The government retaliated by, among other things, cutting off access to the internet, which is why the CIBR's website wasn't updated. Even after the protests had begun, the government claimed that President Hosni Mubarak would open the fair in person.

Most participating publishers had already shipped books to Cairo, and, according to a report by The Guardian's Benedicte Page ("Cairo book fair abandoned amid unrest"; www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/jan/ 31/cairo-book-fair-abandoned), it was unlikely that these books would ever be seen again. So no revenue could be expected. Publishing Perspectives' Oliva Snaije (http://publishingper spectives.com/2011/02/cairo-bookfair-cancelled-600-publishers- affected) reported that the delegation of 248 publishers from China left Egypt on Jan. 27 and commented on the cartons of books abandoned at the fairgrounds.

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Non-Egyptian publishers with staff in Cairo also faced the problem of extricating personnel from the country. The lucky ones canceled their trips to Egypt in advance of the fair dates or left early before the chaos erupted at the Egyptian airports. Those in the country were hampered by technology, or rather the lack of technology. The government disabled the internet, mobile phones stopped working, social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook weren't accessible, and even making a simple phone call became problematic.

Of course, publishers attending the CIBR were not the only foreigners struggling to leave. Tourists, foreign exchange students, nonessential U.S. State Department employees, and expatriates working in the country were equally clamoring to exit Egypt. One Fulbright scholar, Purdue University librarian Michael Witt, who had arrived in Alexandria only a few weeks earlier and planned to stay for 5 months working in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, credits cooperation among the Fulbright organization, the U.S. State Department, Purdue, friends, and family in his evacuation along with his wife and children. …