Not that you’d know it reading the western publishing industry trade journals, but the Cairo International Book Fair has long held the crown as the world’s biggest book fair, attracting millions of visitors each year.

But in 2019 the event moved to its current site in New Cairo from its old site at Nasr, with the inevitable teething problems change brings, and for a time the crown looked to be in jeopardy.

Last year the event attracted “only” 2.5 million, being beaten by another Arab literary event, the Sharjah International Book Fair, which in 2019 pulled in 2.52 million visitors.

But this year it seems the Cairo organisers have resolved all the problems that beleaguered the 2019 event, and Haytham al-Haj Ali, chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO), confirmed that the 51st Cairo International Book Fair, with its theme “Egypt – Africa, A Culture of Diversity,” attracted 3.5 million visitors between January 23 and February 4th this year.

This year the guest of honour was another African country, Senegal, and next year the guest of honour will be Greece.

Mohammad Rashad, President of the Arab Publishers Association, reported that 900 publishers were at the event this year, compared to just 47 in 2019.

In addition, the boycott by the Sour El-Azbakeya second-hand booksellers market ended, adding to the excitement and volume of the 2020 event.

No figures have been reported on sales, but early into the event we were told that sales were up compared to 2018, and it’s likely that continued throughout the duration of the fair.

At the fair it was announced that Cairo had been named the 2020 Capital of Islamic City Culture.

All that said, the event was not an unmitigated resounding success, with controversy surrounding the ban on several books and publishers. We’ll be taking a closer look at that in a special report for the next edition of the TNPS-StreetLib Publish MENA newsletter.

Here just a reminder of the popular myth that Arabs “only read for 6 minutes a year” –

quoted here just to show how utterly ridiculous that notion is.

That post was back in late 2019. But here we are in the first week of February and we have 3.5 million having visited the Cairo book fair, and 320,000 having attended the Doha International Book Fair in Qatar.

The Emirates Airlines Festival in the UAE is currently underway. The event usually attracts about 45,000, which may seem insignificant compared to Cairo but it still bigger than the London Book Fair (25,000) or the New York Book Expo (35,000).

And also just started is the Casablanca International Book Fair in Morocco. Last year 550,000 turned up.

Assuming these expectations hold for 2020 then we are looking at almost 4.5 million people turning out to Arab book events so far this year – and it’s only the first week of February.

So much for the notion that Arabs don’t read.

To which we can add, so much for the notion that Africans don’t read. Because 4 million of the above – Egypt and Morocco – happened in Africa.

The global book market. It’s so much bigger than you think.