At the best of times the logistics of setting up the world’s biggest book fair are problematic. Accommodating over four million eager booklovers over fourteen days is a challenge no other book fair on the planet has to face.
And yes, we are talking Cairo, Egypt, in Afraica, which in defiance of the widely held belief that Arabs and Africans do not read, attracts almost twice as many visitors as its nearest rivals, which while huge in their own rights have never exceeded 2.5 million visitors.
As an aside on the world’s biggest book fairs, two other Arab fairs attract more than 2 million visitors (Sharjah and Algeria – meaning two of the world’s largest book fairs are in Africa!), as do several more around the world, but curiously none are in what we generally regard as major book markets. In fact only one of the two-million club book fairs is in Europe (Spain’s Madrid Book Fair) and none at all are in North America.
But back to Egypt, where the Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) this coming January, which will be celebrating its Golden Jubilee, faces unprecedented calls to be boycotted. Can a boycott make a dent in Cairo’s impressive numbers? Too soon to say, but the Culture Ministry is doing everything it can to ensure not.
What’s the boycott all about? The event’s new location.
Here’s the thing: the regular venue for the Cairo International Book Fair, set for Jan 23 through February 5, and which for the past thirty years has been held at the International Convention Centre (ICC), the only place big enough to get everybody in, is being renovated and could not be hired this year.
So the event has been relocated to the Egypt International Exhibition Centre in the Fifth Settlement district, considered less accessible and with inadequate public transport at the best of times, let alone for an event on this scale.
CIBF general director Shawkat Al-Masry has been fighting on social media and on radio to explain why the move was unavoidable, and that the regular venue is not owned by the government so they had no say in the renovation timing.
Al-Masry stressed public transport would be laid on, with fleets of buses being readied to make sure everyone who wants to can get to and from the event for free, and social media has seen a flurry of statements from the CIBF to reassure booklovers and placate dissent.
Earlier this year the fair drew a crowd of 650,000 in just the first two days, and had topped 4.5 million by the event’s conclusion.
For the Golden Jubilee event publisher participation is higher than ever, with the Arab League as guest of honour, and if the boycott row can be settled and the transportation promises hold true, we could be looking at a spectacular 2019 event.