Siobhán O’Grady: “How a Cairo Bookshop Beat the Odds to Write Its Own Story”

From a Washington Post story by Siobhán O’Grady headlined “How a Cairo bookshop beat the odds to write its own story”:

CAIRO — Outside on a busy thoroughfare, crowds bustle, taxis honk and police officers try to control the uncontrollable traffic.

But inside a cozy bookshop nestled on one Cairo corner, coffee cups steam and quiet reigns.

For nearly 20 years, Diwan Bookstore has offered a respite from the chaos of daily life in the Egyptian capital, persevering through economic downturns, a revolution, a military coup, a crackdown on freedom of expression and a pandemic.

To start a bookshop anywhere is often dismissed as a frivolous, money-losing endeavor. Opening such a shop in Cairo faces a host of other, Egyptian obstacles — and detractors warned Diwan’s founders from the beginning that their business was bound to fail.

Literacy rates remain relatively low here, and reading for pleasure is not common. Only a small subset of the population has the means to buy fairly pricey books. The country is notoriously bureaucratic, which can make operating a business here a series of never-ending encounters with red tape.

When Diwan opened its doors in 2002, even the concept of such a bookshop was an anomaly in Cairo.

Bookstores were typically owned either by publishing houses or the government, Diwan co-founder Nadia Wassef recounts in her new memoir, “Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller.”  They were often dark and dingy, filled with older titles and books that might be moldy or falling apart.

“You went and found more dust than books,” Egyptian novelist and columnist Mohamed Salmawy recalled.

Wassef, her sister Hind and their friend Nihal Schawky dreamed of a different kind of space: a multilingual bookstore that would allow readers to browse work from legendary Egyptian authors like Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz but also a wide array of emerging voices from across the Arab world — as well as titles from the United States and Europe. A place where women would feel safe from the sexual harassment they often experienced on Cairo’s streets. A shop that didn’t just sell books but fostered community.

They also hoped to seize on what they sensed at the time was a period of momentum in Cairo’s creative scene, believing Diwan could fill an obvious gap. They decided to go into business, together with their friend Ziad Bahaa-Eldin and Schawky’s then-husband Ali Dessouki.

“At that time, Cairo was ripe and ready for a lot,” Wassef said.

The early days

They started in Zamalek, a largely upper-class neighborhood on an island in the Nile, where they secured a space in a charming old building that used to house a gym.

Because no comparable bookshops existed in Cairo, essentially everything had to start from scratch, Wassef writes — from the process of acquiring the books to making up for the widespread lack of ISBN numbers, the international identification system for book sales.

In their design, the founders drew inspiration from other beloved bookshops, like Shakespeare and Company in Paris and Rizzoli in New York. They put English-language books on display on one side and Arabic on the other. A cozy cafe sat in the middle, inviting customers to stay to read or chat.

Diwan’s premise alone sparked confusion at times. Some visitors to the shop struggled to differentiate between a bookstore and a public library, urging the owners to give out the books for free. Some customers, Wassef recalls, tried to return books, saying they had read them and hadn’t liked them.

Sometimes bureaucrats, too, were confused. In one run-in with government censors, Wassef was summoned to the now-defunct Mogamma, a labyrinthine building of government offices that was infamous for embodying all the worst traits of Egyptian bureaucracy. It was 2004, and a book title Diwan was importing had caught the attention of government censors: “The Naked Chef,” by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver. Wassef, through a male lawyer, had to carefully convey to the man behind the desk that the title didn’t mean what it sounded like.

But some Cairenes recognized that Diwan was a crucial missing piece in the city’s literary landscape and relished the shop. Diwan hosted book launches and book signings — events that until then had been rare occurrences in Egypt. The women behind Diwan carefully curated their collections. Cairenes flocked to the shop to buy novels, self-help books, poetry, cookbooks and more.

“A book was not really born, was not put on the scene, if it did not have a book signing at that time in Diwan,” said Salmawy.

The shop “transformed the experience and possibility of being a writer in Egypt,” said Egyptian author Yasmine El Rashidi. “What Diwan did was they offered this space in Cairo that had never existed, and that we had an understanding existed in other countries but never believed would exist in Cairo.”

Expanding and evolving

Over time, Diwan expanded, opening new locations. The challenge, its owners knew, would be to maintain the special essence of the flagship shop. Some shops did better than others. Not all survived.

And as Diwan evolved, so did Egypt.

In those early years, “it seemed like the Egyptian literary community was sort of becoming more central and finding a place in the world and in society and that serious writing would be appreciated more,” said Youssef Rakha, an Egyptian novelist, essayist and poet. “That sense is definitely associated in my mind with spaces like Diwan.”

Then, in 2011, 18 days of Arab Spring street protests forced strongman Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt since 1981, to step down.

During that tumultuous period, Diwan’s “shop floors became confessionals,” Wassef recalls. “Diwan was a place to escape from, or return to, the political moment.”

The next year, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Mohamed Morsi was elected president, only to be overthrown a year later by the Egyptian army led by Gen. Abdel Fatah al-Sissi. Security forces killed at least 900 people while dispersing a sit-in in support of the Muslim Brotherhood, according to human rights groups. Sissi has served as president since 2014.

Diwan’s customers, including many who had given up on their revolutionary dreams, turned to titles that might offer spiritual solace, Wassef noted.

Amid this tumult, Diwan’s founders feared what the future would bring. Wassef and her sister opted to leave Cairo; Hind pursued a culinary degree in London, and Wassef moved to Dubai before joining her sister in England.

But Schawky stayed in Egypt and, after taking leave from Diwan, eventually joined forces with two former Diwan employees to form a new team to run the stores.

Today, Diwan continues to adapt to the times. It now has nine locations in Egypt — including its original Zamalek flagship, two book trucks and one seasonal shop on the coast. Its shelves still hold the latest titles. Its cafes still host groups of friends and neighbors. Its branches still draw crowds for book launches and signings.

“I feel like Diwan is the child of Cairo,” Wassef said. “She’s survived, she’s gotten bruised quite a few times, but haven’t we all? Isn’t that what life is about? It’s about endurance — and you just soldier on.”

Siobhán O’Grady is the The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief, covering North Africa and Yemen.

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