Book-selling stalls: an Egyptian landmark

Book sellers display their merchandise at al-Azbakiyah market [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

Book sellers display their merchandise at al-Azbakiyah market [Waleed Abu al-Khair/Al-Shorfa]

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It is rare to walk the streets of Cairo or Alexandria and not come across a stall that sells books, daily newspapers, and Arab and international magazines.

Although many Egyptians and tourists dislike the profusion of street vendors, bookstalls still hold a special status, having become "spontaneous" attractions for some and a pastime for others.

Every evening, university student Mahmoud Tarawi visits Tahrir Square in central Cairo to buy his daily newspapers, whose first editions are distributed at around 7 pm.

Tarawi, a Kuwaiti student attending the Faculty of Engineering at Cairo University, then continues his excursion to peruse the books displayed by the many vendors.

"I have been living in Cairo for three years, and when I am not studying, some of the rituals I engage in, such as my excursion in the bookstalls, are a pursuit that only Cairo residents relish," he told Al-Shorfa.

At least once a week, Tarawi visits the book market in al-Azbakiyah district in Cairo, "even if I am not looking to buy a specific book," he said.

"It has become a habit for me to check what books are on sale, in addition to the fact that the market's patrons are from the educated class and often hold discussions about a book or a controversial author, turning the market into a cultural forum par excellence," he added.

Al-Azbakiyah: a premier book market

Mohammed Abdul-Ghani, a stall owner in the Cairo centre, has been selling books, newspapers and magazines in the same spot for more than 10 years.

He received the necessary license from the Cairo province to keep his stall at that same location.

"My stall has become a meeting space for many citizens who wish to read," Abdul Ghani told Al-Shorfa.

"Some of them come to buy their daily newspaper and others peruse newly published books, while some swing by for a quick read of the daily headlines of displayed newspapers," he added.

Abdul Ghani said he inherited the bookstall from his father and is currently running it with his brother, who manages their main bookstore in al-Azbakiyah market.

"Al-Azbakiyah is the premier bookselling market in Egypt, as it has new, used and rare historical books that are hard to find in regular bookstores," he added.

The market is made of four pathways and about 150 shops, but street vendors have turned it into a bustling commercial area with all kinds of goods and food, Abdul Ghani said.

This caused it "to lose some of its cultural and aesthetic luster", he added.

Abdul Ghani hoped "al-Azbakiyah would [someday] revert to its past tidiness and organisation".

He said he hopes that the "street vendor issue is resolved by transferring them to markets allocated for them as soon as possible, because [al-Azbakiyah] is steeped in history and the book market area has a cultural character, also due to its proximity to the puppet theatre."

Meanwhile, Raed al-Salmouni, a market inspector in Cairo province, said the on-going security crackdown to remove infringements by street vendors in Cairo, Alexandria and other provinces does not apply to booksellers, since "the majority of them obtained legal licenses and established a historical presence in the areas where they set up their stalls".

The latest official directives call for reorganising the section occupied by major book merchants in al-Azbakiyah, al-Salmouni said.

"This will reflect positively on merchants in terms of securing the market's entrances and exits and removing some violations to preserve the market's significance and history," he added.