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04.15.12

Arab Spring Tensions at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair

Is the Arab world’s biggest literary festival shutting out Egyptian publishers?

For Mohamed Hashem, an Egyptian publisher and democracy activist renowned for his publish-and-be-damned stance, this is the best and the worst of times. “We’re facing hard times because of the economic conditions in Egypt,” he said, “but I don’t care. Freedom is more important than money. I’m in debt and under financial stress. But I don’t want to blame it on the revolution. That’s the best thing that’s happened in my life so far.”

Hashem was speaking at his publishing house behind Tahrir Square on the eve of the Cairo book fair this past January. Merit (its name is a swipe at corrupt ways) has published 700 books—including Alaa Al Aswany’s international bestseller The Yacoubian Building—amid harassment from both Islamists and the state. As for lawsuits, Hashem throws up his hands: “Too many to count.” Last Dec. 19, he was denounced on television as a saboteur by Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for distributing food and gas masks to protesters. He heard a warrant was out for his arrest.

In the ensuing outcry, Facebook followers changed their profile photo to his, proclaiming, “We are all Mohamed Hashem.” A recipient of a medal from German PEN, he also had support from the Egyptian Publishers Association (EPA) and PEN International. Within hours, the threat of arrest had been withdrawn.

Merit is among publishers across the Arab world hit by the economic impact of the recent uprisings. Mohamed El-Baaly, who founded Cairo’s Sefsafa publishing in 2010, stresses that “in the long term, getting rid of dictatorship will open up possibilities.” But the cancellation of last year’s Cairo International Book Fair and poor attendance this year (where booksellers also complained of leaking roofs) were severe blows. Given poor Arab-world distribution, book fairs function as annual bazaars, with students and families wheeling away books in shopping carts. According to Mohamed Rashad, EPA’s president, the Cairo fair accounts for half the annual sales of Egyptian publishers. With a general slump, too, some were forced out of business.

The contrast with the opulent Abu Dhabi International Book Fair could not be more marked. The 22nd fair ended this month in the United Arab Emirates capital, in a sparkling steel-and-glass exhibition center near Zaha Hadid’s futuristic new bridge, whose undulating arches mimic sand dunes. With 900 exhibitors—most of them Arab—from 54 countries, the fastest-growing book fair in the Middle East and North Africa is part of a strategy to reinvent the richest emirate as a global “center of culture and cosmopolitanism.” This ambition—partly insurance for when the oil runs out—is also behind the extravagant designs for a cultural quarter on the city’s Saadiyat Island, to include Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim and Jean Nouvel’s Louvre.

Claudia Kaiser, a senior manager at the Frankfurt Book Fair, says Abu Dhabi is chiefly a publishers’ trade fair, to professionalize the Arab book industry in a potential market of 24 countries with 340 million people. Frankfurt co-ran it for five years, but has now moved into the wings as consultant. The fair has made strides in “matchmaking” Arab and foreign publishers and offers subsidies: 500 new translations into Arabic, from Milton to Murakami, have appeared under one scheme. Besides literacy drives, the $60,000 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), or “Arabic Booker”—with know-how from London’s Booker Foundation—is announced here. The sixth winner, Rabee Jaber of Lebanon, who won for The Druze of Belgrade, says the guarantee of translation has “found new readers for Arabic novels.”

Last year’s IPAF awards ceremony resounded with applause at each mention of the “Arab storm”—just as U.A.E. police joined Saudi troops to crush protests in Bahrain.

In light of economic hardships, Arab exhibitors were offered 50 percent off registration fees—a belated adoption of discounts last year at Riyadh and other fairs. “In the field of Arab publishers, we’re experts and know how to satisfy Arab needs,” the book fair’s longstanding director, Jumaa al-Qubaisi, says over tea, on the ample white sofas of an official stand. He is proud of his fight against the rampant book piracy and copyright theft that can prevent books from furnishing a livelihood: “We’re the only fair in the Arab world that’s really tough.” As for censorship, books banned in some Arab states are on sale here. Abu Dhabi’s National Library, of which he also is director, is opening six more branches, and “we need more books.” This official Gulf purchasing power is important to Arab publishers. More Egyptians came this year than last—though fewer than in 2009. “We try to do our best to help, by buying for the library,” as well gifting millions of dirhams’ worth of book coupons to children and students.

According to Rashad, last year the state “bought well from most Egyptian publishers.” But a small number complained that pledges made to buy from Egyptian stands were not fulfilled; that fewer books were bought, and at higher discounts. Al-Qubaisi says, “We choose what we want,” avoiding reprints or poor quality. “We don’t want books made in a few days. They get mad if you don’t buy them—it’s not reasonable or rational.” Sherif Bakr, general manager of Al Arabi Publishing and Distribution, and founder of the Arab Academy for Professional Publishing, says, “I’m not asking them to buy or bring buyers. Just don’t say that you are helping the Egyptians or the revolution.”

The spat may be symptomatic of mutual suspicion since the Arab Spring. Conservative Gulf states have scrambled to contain the spread of rebellion, while voicing support for the revolutions (the U.A.E. was the biggest investor in Mubarak’s Egypt). There are other tensions. Last year’s IPAF awards ceremony resounded with applause at each mention of the “Arab storm”—just as U.A.E. police joined Saudi troops to crush protests in Bahrain. In a strategic rethink, the philanthropic Emirates Foundation, which funds the prize, has said it will do more for youth—the seedbed of revolt elsewhere.

A noisy new assertiveness after the uprisings might also grate in Abu Dhabi’s deferential hierarchy, where it is a crime under the penal code to insult top officials. Bakr and two other publishers who criticized last year’s fair in the Arab press were refused entry this year on the grounds that it was overbooked—despite its stated policy of first come, first served. All say they applied at last year’s fair, though Al-Qubaisi says their papers were late or incomplete. Bakr then applied to attend as a trade visitor without a stand, but was refused. Given his record in international deals, he says, “If I am not their target publisher, then who is?” Hashem, who did not apply this year, partly because, he says, he was refused a stand in 2011 and had to share, claims, “They buy from those who say yes, but those who oppose them, they punish.”

According to Al-Qubaisi, Hashem “didn’t apply last year, and wanted a stand ... But despite all that, and his bad manners, we ended up buying his books. They’ve got a complex I can’t fix ... We’re working really neutrally, and they need to work by our requirements.”

Maybe so. But global ambitions invite international scrutiny. As this piece was being written, the fair sent a formal “complaint” to the EPA against Hashem, Bakr, and the two other Cairo publishers. Tolerating criticism is proof of openness. The reflex to silence it is far more of a threat to the emirate’s achievements and goals.