Egyptian author Nadia Wassef talks about opening the first independent bookstore in her home country; and her latest book in which she celebrates books and booksellers.
Nadia Wassef has seen a lot in her 40s. Born in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, she was seven years old in 1981 when the Muslim Brotherhood assassinated President Anwar Sadat and MP Hosni Mubarak became President of Egypt. She was 37 when the Arab Spring toppled the dictator in 2011.
A year after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2014, she moved to the UK. Before that, Wassef had spent most of his life on Zamalek, an island in the middle of the Nile west of Cairo. It was here that she and her sister Hind decided to open their first bookstore, Diwan.
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She immortalized the experience in her book, Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, to be released on October 5 – the German edition was released on September 13 under the title Jeden Tag blättert das Schicksal eine Seite um (Every day the destiny turns a page).
The idea of a bookstore
The inspiration for the store came at a time when Wassef was feeling depressed and frustrated. “Our father passed away after a very long and hard illness,” she told DW.
Then at a dinner party with friends, she was asked a question: “If you could do something, what would you do?”
Wassef and his sister spoke in unison: they would open a bookstore. “I remember that night we sat there dreaming about it,” she said. “Hind, my sister, said, ‘It won’t be just any kind of bookstore, every shelf has to count, every book has to make a contribution.'”
As related in Shelf Life, the name Diwan was suggested to the co-founders by their mother Faiza. The word, Faiza explained, meant an anthology of poems in Persian and Arabic, but also meant a place where people gathered. It is used to connote a guest house and even an elegant sofa.
Diwani was also a word used to describe Arabic calligraphy, Faiza said, adding that the word would be easy to pronounce for English speakers, French speakers and Arabic speakers. Diwan was born.
Opened in 2002 as the only independent bookstore of its kind in Egypt, Diwan quickly became a huge success. Within a decade, it had stores in ten locations and approximately 150 employees. All this despite an ongoing revolution in the country.
Women doing business in Egypt
The chronicle of the Wassef bookstore is a testimony of the time. “In the past 10 years we’ve seen revolutions, we’ve seen one financial collapse, we’ve seen another revolution,” Wassef said. She refers to the Arab Spring that began in 2011, the brief democratic government that saw the Muslim Brotherhood rule the country, and the rise of the country’s current leader, El Sisi.
Wassef said he wrote the book, not only to better understand “my relationship with the city and the bookstore”, but to celebrate “a Cairo that existed 20 years ago”.
She describes the bookstore as “like a sister you might not get along with anymore, but you hang on to her because you know that only you have the same memory.”
Diwan was also her way of grappling with stereotypes, especially the idea that women in Egypt had problems doing business.
“Tell me how do men deal with being men [in business]”said Wassef, who decided she wouldn’t let these conventions get in her way.
“And I think when you operate in that mindset you keep moving forward,” she said, adding that her biggest challenge was universal: dealing with bureaucracy.
The importance of a bookstore
When the Arab Spring arrived in 2011, it was not, on the one hand, conducive to business.
“When you’re in the middle of a revolution and you don’t know if people are staying at home or going out, if the suppliers are going to deliver,” she recalls.
But on the other hand, bookstores like Diwan, with organized shelves and an adjacent cafe, thrive on discussions and ideas, on the freedoms she says are restricted in El Sisi’s Egypt.
Wassef tries to move away from the black and white nature of politics: “The problem with human beings is that we think in dualities. We think in oppositions because it’s easy. Unfortunately, the easy answers are nice, but they don’t give you much. “
This is partly why Diwan sold not only books in Arabic, but also in English, French and German, signifying a dialogue between cultures rather than a “clash of civilizations” – as in Samuel’s flagship book. Huntington of the same name.
Bookstores “are important in our lives,” Wassef said, because sometimes they are the source of an irreplaceable community that cannot be found by clicking an online order button.
“Bookstores anchor us, they help us travel safely, because we can come back,” she added. “You go and you come back. And that’s one of the things that’s extremely empowering.”
Shelf Life is therefore a “tribute to books and bookstores”. And, like Egypt, Diwan has certainly seen more than his fair share of change.
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