Not a single shop sells only children's books
The Cairo International Book Fair, which opened last week, once again highlighted the troubled status of children's literature.
"We don't have writers that know how to write for children," says Amira Abul Magd, the head of the children's publishing unit in the large Egyptian publishing house of Dar El-Shorouk, in describing the main obstacle affecting the state of reading in Arab countries.
Abul Magd has been the director of this unique department for eight years, and she voiced this cautionary word of criticism during the children's book fair held in Cairo a month ago. Last week, when opening the Cairo International Book Fair, the seriousness of her words became evident. Numerous children had come to the fair with their parents or classmates, but very few emerged carrying bags with books purchased at the fair.
Egypt's children can buy the affordable old books distributed by the governmental publishing house Dar Al Maaref, written over 50 years ago. "But they are so out of date and written in a language children find difficult to understand," complained Abul Magd in an interview with the Egyptian monthly, "Egypt Today."
Thus, for example, she describes books in which the grandmothers appear bent over and wrinkled, at a time when "grandmothers no longer look like that. They are 'cool,' they use the Internet and most are working women."
Although Abul Magd works with a select group of Egyptian authors who write and illustrate books for children, in particular the eminent illustrator Walid Taher, who invented the beloved character of Fezo, the boy who can solve problems and give advice to children. But when it comes to scientific children's books and other non-fiction releases, she finds herself up against a wall: "We don't have trained writers who know how to write for children on these subjects." This leaves her no choice but to import books, which are written for a different culture ("with drawings of red-tiled roofs"), and which may not be entirely suited to Egyptian culture.
Wait for the pay
Children's literature is a painful subject that comes up each time a book fair is held in Egypt - and is dropped just as quickly. Thus, for example, only one session will be devoted to the subject of children's literature and its distribution problems in Arab countries, among the dozens of other discussions that will be held in the context of the fair.
Three years ago, at a conference on children's literature held in Kuwait, emphasis was placed on the need to encourage the publication of periodicals for children that would "encourage the development of a shared Arab consciousness." Abul Magd opposes this approach.
The problem is not really, she says, so much a shortage of talented writers, but rather the conditions in which they work. Whereas a writer of literature geared to adults usually receives a cash advance and sees profits from the first day the book appears in the shops, children's authors are forced to wait until the book is published, and only after it starts selling do they see a percentage of the profits. The result is that very few writers see their future in children's literature, which is why Cairo does not have even a single shop that sells only children's books.
But the dispute over the content of children's books is only part of the burgeoning problem in a region in which children up to the age of 14 represent 45 percent of the population.
Two years ago children's literature and the future of reading were the focus of an international report on development in the Middle East, which was published by the United Nations. The current book fair, however, is focusing on a single, sexy subject: Globalization and the Arab countries. Thus, for example, discussions will be held at the fair on "Cultural Pluralism and Globalization," "Identity in an Age of a University-polar World," "Dialogue between Religions and Civilizations" and other subjects that are discussed to death by Arab writers.
Notable in its absence among all the "multicultural" subjects is the question of Israel's participation, or rather non-participation in the fair, and in particular the continuing ban by those very same Arab "globalist" intellectuals on contact of any kind with Israeli intellectuals. It is questionable whether the European publishing houses, especially the German ones - this year is "Germany year" at the Egyptian fair - will bring up the subject of this boycott.
The Egyptian book fair is the most important literary event held in Arab countries, and it also serves as an indication of trends in the industry. Thus, for example, an unusual publication garnered extensive publicity, an index of articles, interpretations and news items published in the last year in the Egyptian and Arab press on the subject of Hosni Mubarak. The index begins in the year 2004 and continues into 2005, and will be continued in the coming years. It already contains 16 volumes with over 50,000 references of various kinds. The index is published by Ask Zad, which maintains a most comprehensive Internet site with information on Arab countries.
This huge project may be helpful for those who want to know everything about Mubarak, but it serves no benefit for students in most areas of Egypt, who are unable to pay for access to the site or to purchase computers with which they could enter it. "Data literature" is an inseparable part of the Arab bookshelf, a trend that will apparently continue into the future.
A number of Egyptian publishing houses threatened to leave the fair because of comments by the fair manager, Dr. Nasser Al-Ansari. He called some of the publishing companies "random." In other words, he related to them as insignificant, the worst insult imaginable. And the management placed ugly wooden partitions between the booths, which were immediately dubbed the "separation wall."
A more serious problem being faced by the fair this year appears to be that it coincides with the African football cup championship matches, which attract far larger crowds than a book fair.