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Egyptian turmoil underscores the importance of books

February 1, 2011

The modern Alexandria Library

Who says kids don’t read anymore — or at least understand the value of books? This thought comes in response to the news that young people are collaborating with the Egyptian army to protect the famous library at Alexandria from looters and “lawless bands of thugs.”

In other book news related to the unrest in Egypt, the Cairo Book Fair, the largest and most important literary event in the Middle East, has been — not so much canceled as “abandoned,” reports the Guardian, with publishers and booksellers pulling out just before the fair was due to open last Saturday.

Here in the U.S. it’s hard to know what exactly is going on in Egypt, where mass demonstrations are calling for the end of dictator Hosni Mubarak’s 32-year-reign. The lack of reliable news is made worse by the decision of most American cable companies not to carry Al Jazeera English.

According to Ryan Grim at the Huffington Post, Al Jazeera’s “on-the-ground coverage of the turmoil is unmatched by any other outlet.”

While viewers in Canada have wide access to Al Jazeera, only a few pockets — Ohio, Vermont, D.C. — receive the channel in the U.S. The hostility of the Bush administration toward Al Jazeera made cablers reluctant to pick it up. Even more, carriers fear providing the Arab-based news channel would cause significant numbers of Americans to cancel their service.

Ismail Serageldin

Maybe the Egyptian crisis will calm their fears. After all, since the Cairo protests began traffic at Al Jazeera’s website, where you can watch live footage, has increased by 2,500 percent. Tony Burman, head of North American strategies for Al Jazeera English, says 60 percent of the new visitors come from the United States.

Meanwhile, the library at Alexandra is safe thanks to the intervention of young protesters, reports the Guardian. Director Ismail Serageldin posted this assurance on the library’s website:

“The library is safe thanks to Egypt’s youth, whether they be the staff of the Library or the representatives of the demonstrators, who are joining us in guarding the building from potential vandals and looters.  I am there daily within the bounds of the curfew hours.”

Serageldin said young demonstrators are working with the army to direct traffic, protect neighborhoods and guard public buildings against “lawless bands of thugs, and maybe agents provocateurs.” He said, “This makeshift arrangement is in place until full public order returns.”

Earlier some 50 looters broke into the Egyptian Museum, tearing the heads off of two mummies, but they were interrupted and detained by soldiers before they could make off with any priceless artifacts, according to the Huffington Post.

The modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina opened in 2002 with space for eight million books following after a long campaign to recreate the glories of the ancient library. The project was supported by President Mubarak.

Mubarak is also a booster of the Cairo Book Fair, “hitherto raising the curtain,” according to the Guardian. But with the widespread protests in the city streets, the president failed to show for Saturday’s opening ceremonies. By that time, special guest China and most other participants had either gone home or canceled travel plans, although some participants may be temporarily stranded.

“There was no official announcement by fair organisers that the event had been cancelled, but Mubarak did not come,” said Salwa Gaspard, of the independent Lebanese publishing company Saqi Books. “Our representative from Beirut was lucky enough to find a plane home, but people are still there.”

The failure of the book fair will cost many participants, Gaspard said: “Publishers send books ahead because, unlike at other fairs, at Cairo you sell directly to the public. It is a huge organisation and many people will have shipped big quantities … we are a bit pessimistic about getting the books back, and of course there is no insurance for this sort of situation.”

The Cairo fair has been controversial in the past, with books critical of the government seized by Egyptian authorities, including titles by Milan Kundera, Ibrahim Badi, Hanan al-Sheikh and Elias Khoury, reports the Guardian. In 2005 some booksellers were arrested.

I can only hope that next year’s fair will open in a free and prosperous Egypt, with Cairo restored to its position as the region’s leading cultural center.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    February 1, 2011 1:56 pm


  2. February 1, 2011 3:20 pm

    Very interesting. It is time for change.

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