Recent studies on reading in the Arab world have shown a drastic decline in those picking up books and newspapers in their free time, and Egyptians, young people in particular, have frequently come out near the bottom in Arab readership rankings.
There’s nothing like a revolution to spark people’s thirst for knowledge, and nothing like the shedding of censorship to bring the titles that people really want to read into the stores. Egypt, it seems, has never been more eager to read.
It is telling that books by Abdel Halim Qandil, the outspoken former physician turned editor and Kefaya movement leader, were in high demand in Tahrir Square during the revolution. Qandil’s three volumes of political essays, “The Last Days,” “Red Card to the President” and the recently published “The Replacement President” were passed around the Square by those who had managed to get their hands on a contraband copy hidden deep in the storeroom of a nameless bookstore.
Amongst the protesters in Tahrir Square, reading became more than just a way to pass the time. There, as fear melted away and freedom of expression flourished, reading became a way to take ownership over ongoing events, and a tool of self-education after so many years of censorship and state-controlled reporting.
“Tahrir was full of newspapers, and some people even started a newspaper from the square. Being part of history made people realize the necessity of understanding events and debating issues,” said student protester Myrna Said. “I think this was an important lesson for us; if we want to build a better Egypt, we need to be informed,” she said.
Tellingly, Qandil’s books, which offer insightful criticisms of the Mubarak regime, are no less in demand nearly a month after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, but now they have become freely available in bookstores across the capital, offering readers a belated political education from prominent and well-stocked displays.
On Maadi’s Street 9, home to several bookstores including Alef, Bookspot and Diwan, posters advertising Qandil’s books caught the attention of passersby.
Amr Fouad, a 26-year-old engineer did a double take when he saw a large advertisement for “Red Card to the President” near the entrance to Bookspot.
“This is something I never thought I’d see,” he told Daily News Egypt. “The fact that books critical of Mubarak are being freely bought and sold in the middle of Cairo is incredible.”
Although books critical of the former regime were never completely absent in Egypt, now that they are freely available it has become clear how eager Egyptian readers are to get their hands on the information and opinions contained in books like Qandil’s.
“A lot of customers have started purchasing political books,” said Mohamed, a salesperson at Alef bookstore. “Qandil’s books are popular and so are Alaa Aswany’s non-fiction books. People come in all the time asking specifically for books that weren’t available before and are so surprised and happy to know that they can just buy it and take it home without worrying about consequences.”
This new era of freedom will undoubtedly see more people reading — and writing — about politics, but change in other realms should not necessarily be expected so quickly. Controversial political writings are one thing, but opening up Egypt’s literary scene to a range of other ideas might prove to be quite another.
It will probably be some time before books deemed morally offensive are openly displayed in Egypt’s shops. In 2000, thousands of Al-Azhar students rioted following the release of a book they deemed “offensive to Islam,” and in this period of heightened tension, certain issues are probably better left unchallenged.
Still, the feeling of greater literary freedom is palpable in Cairo, and the phenomenon of reading seems to be considered by many as a key practice that will allow Egypt’s civil society, stunted by years of suppression, to grow and thrive as the country undertakes the hard work of building a democracy.