CairoBookStop: New Website Aims to Map Cairo’s Book Scene

A few weeks ago, Nancy Linthicum and Michele Henjum announced the launch of CairoBookStop, a site that aims to assist scholars, book lovers, book buyers, book makers, and book sellers, connecting people with books:

The website — also in Arabic — offers a map to publishers and bookstores, as well as some general information about Cairo’s many publishing and bookselling venues.

No such map could ever be complete: As difficult a business as books might be, there are booksellers and publishers all across Cairo, in addition to book kiosks, book sales inside stationery shops, and street-side book vendors. But Linthicum and Henjum are also in the business of expanding the site, taking viewer feedback and adding more points on the map.

As the project begins to grow, Linthicum and Henjum answered a few questions about it — and their other projects — over email.

ArabLit: Could you give me a sense of why you decided to start on this project? Its impetus?

Nancy Linthicum and Michele Henjum: The site grew out of a shared passion for Arabic literature and a simple question of how to track down the books we wanted to read. We met in Cairo in 2009 as fellows at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (talking about books, of course!). One of us is a scholar and the other a translator; we both love books and Arabic lit, and after a few conversations, we realized we had many of the same questions about publishing. It quickly became clear to us that the publishing and bookselling world in Egypt operates quite differently from the one we know in the US and that if we wanted to understand how things work on the ground we’d have to do some digging and look into the network of publishers in Cairo. We visited as many bookstores and publishing houses as possible, first just as readers.

We asked questions about the background of each house, what kinds of books they publish, and what kinds of restraints publishers and writers face.

From there we decided to collaborate on a project on publishing – which later expanded to include booksellers, too – and began to interview various publishers and learn more about the local literary and publishing scene straight from the source. We asked questions about the background of each house, what kinds of books they publish, and what kinds of restraints publishers and writers face. We also asked about book distribution within Egypt and among other Arab countries, and some general questions about house operations and backlists. Going back to our personal interests, we learned that many of the publishers we talked to publish translations of literature in Arabic, and we found great bookstores that stock works published by other Arabic publishers outside of Egypt, although this was not our focus in putting the site together.

As we worked on the project and got to know more, we could see that a few simple pieces of information can make the book hunting process a lot easier. At the time there were no similar guides, either in Arabic or English, so it seemed a shame not to make this information more widely available.

We also tried for a format that would let the project continue to grow as others contribute information, making CairoBookStop an even more helpful and comprehensible resource on modern Arabic lit in Cairo down the road, we hope.

There is still a lot that can be done, but once we reached a point where we’d collected enough information to make a decent start, we decided to make that available. We also tried for a format that would let the project continue to grow as others contribute information, making CairoBookStop an even more helpful and comprehensible resource on modern Arabic lit in Cairo down the road, we hope.

We also want to mention the help and support we’ve received along the way. We’ve been taken aback by how approachable and accessible everyone we’ve worked with has been. The many publishers, writers, booksellers, and employees of the establishments we’ve interviewed have been so generous with their time and quite happy to share their knowledge of the industry in Cairo with us – two foreigners trying to get to know the scene. Also, without the insights, contacts, and valuable knowledge about the literary scene in Cairo from many friends and colleagues, especially Humphrey Davies, Hamdy el-Gazzar, and Nagat Ali, CairoBookStop never would have taken shape.

AL: Where are you planning to publish the information you’ve gathered in the interviews with publishers? 

NL: Much of the information that we’ve gathered from our interviews with specific houses and bookstores can be found in the descriptions we’ve written for CairoBookStop. Of course there’s information that falls outside of this. Some of this more general info is reflected in other sections of our site, including pages onPublishing & Bookselling and How to find a book in Cairo. The topic of publishing in Cairo is also a part of my dissertation, which focuses on contemporary Egyptian literature and the Cairene literary scene over the past couple of decades or so, and I do plan to write up something a bit more substantial on publishing to share or link to on CairoBookStop down the line.

AL: How do you hope to see the site expand?

NL & MH: As it stands now, CairoBookStop serves as a guide to literary-minded publishing houses and bookstores in Cairo and includes an interactive map, basic info and descriptions on each house and store, and some other general info about the literary/ publishing scene in Cairo. Now that we’ve launched the site, we want to expand to include as many stores and houses that focus on modern Arabic lit as possible.

The initial feedback and suggestions we’ve received have been wonderful. This is the kind of collaboration we’re seeking and what we’ll use to make the site an even better resource. We’ve already had several suggested additions and comments we’re working to address. CairoBookStop is a labor of love run by two people who are committed to keeping the site as relevant and up-to-date as possible. We’re adding a new section so our readers know what we’re working on and so they can see their feedback and suggestions are being heard.

AL: Could people potentially put comments/reviews of bookshops? Questions (and answers) about where to find particular books? 

NL & MH: Right now the site isn’t open to comments, but readers are welcome to email us at cairobookstop [at] gmail [dot] com. We hadn’t thought about a Q&A page before, but are now looking into adding a kind of forum page that would allow our readers/ visitors to speak directly to one another.

AL: Who do you hope/imagine will use the site? 

NL & MH: Anyone looking for literary books in Cairo—this could be residents (both Egyptians and non), expats, students, scholars, visitors, etc. We’d initially hoped the site will be useful for readers, booksellers, publishers, researchers, and scholars, and still hope this is the case. Basically we picture this site being used by those who’d benefit from a resource that helps them locate specific (literary) books in Cairo. The site may also be helpful for new publishing houses looking for bookstores to sell their books, researchers seeking specific titles or info on the publishing industry itself, or bookstore owners. Possibly it could help others outside of Cairo (book buyers, other publishers and bookstores, libraries) get in touch with Cairo-based publishers and stores.

We’ve found that those in the literary scene in Cairo already have a system for tracking down the books they want to read and staying informed. However, more casual book buyers (even Egyptians) often have many of the same troubles we ran into when looking for a book.

We also don’t mean for this site to be just for expats/ English-speakers, which is why we’re working on the Arabic site. We’ve found that those in the literary scene in Cairo already have a system for tracking down the books they want to read and staying informed. However, more casual book buyers (even Egyptians) often have many of the same troubles we ran into when looking for a book. For that reason, and to help other Arabic-speaking visitors, researchers, and scholars, we are making CairoBookStop bilingual.

AL: Have you been tracking usage at all? Will you?

NL & MH: Yes, we have peeked at our page views a couple of times. We’re happily pleased and surprised with the number of people that have looked at the site–especially when we first announced it last week, and we seem to continue to get a steady stream of visitors, who seem to be mostly from Egypt and the US, which isn’t surprising.

AL: Have you thought about whether to include libraries or book-rental places? Why/why not? 

NL & MH: This was one of the first suggestions we received as soon as we announced the site—several times, actually. It’s definitely something that’s been on our radar for a while, and we’re looking into the logistics of adding this to the site. If anyone has good info or tips on where to find a listing of libraries and how they operate (for foreigners vs. Egyptians), we’d appreciate your suggestions.

AL: How large does a bookstore have to be before you consider it a bookstore? When is, for instance, it just a stationary shop?

NL & MH: When we first started this project, we wanted to include a sampling of small, mid-sized, and large publishing houses, including one government-run house. As we expand, we don’t have a list of specific criteria houses must meet to be included. That being said, we are focused on contemporary Arabic literature. The places that are listed right now are largely a reflection of those we had the opportunity to interview or visit with, along with a few we haven’t. Going forward, if a store has a hearty selection of modern literature or perhaps a good stock of a more specific subject or area that is harder to find in other stores, we’d most likely include it.

AL: So you’re looking to keep it to higher-quality bookstores rather than a more “comprehensive” listing? I guess stalls are probably out.

NL: We’ve talked about adding stalls and did make sure to include a page on Soor el-Azbakeya – a kind of institution in itself – but we haven’t gone further than that. We confirm all of the info that comes our way before adding it to our map and adding pages so that our readers know that the info on our site is as up-to-date and accurate as possible. We’re worried that tracking down stalls, confirming that they have a good supply of Arabic lit, and maintaining info on this would be difficult to keep up with. So for right now, yes, we’re looking more for bookstores and publishing houses that are a bit more established than bookstalls to write up pages and descriptions for. That being said, if there’s a more established or permanent stall or set of stalls selling contemporary Arabic lit, we’d be happy to know about it and would consider adding it, especially to the map.
 

AL: Any possible future where you list events at publishers and bookstores? Or allow them to list?

NL & MH: We would love to do this, but at the moment it seems a bit overwhelming. There are a lot of book events in Cairo, and it would be quite hard to keep up with everything. It is something we’re thinking about, though.

As for allowing others to post, we want the site to be as helpful and objective a resource as possible, which makes us a bit wary of letting everyone post their own events and advertise for their own stores and houses directly on the site. We’re thinking about adding some sort of forum page, as we mentioned before, and this could be one way our readers could share information with each other about upcoming literary events in Cairo.

Nancy Linthicum is a doctoral candidate in Arabic literature and language at the University of Michigan. She currently resides in Ann Arbor with her husband and gets back to Cairo as often as she can, having lived in Egypt on-and-off for a number of years.

Michele Henjum lives in Cairo. Before moving to the Middle East she spent several years in NY where she obtained an MA in Comparative Literature from CUNY Graduate Center and also worked in book publishing for two years. She came to Cairo from Damascus in 2009 and has remained in the city since, working as a translator.

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