Reading the Times

The statue of Talaat Harb in the bustling downtown Cairo square faces Haj Mohammed Madbuli's store directly. Behind the statue of the founder of the Egyptian film industry and of Banque Misr stands the Dar El Shorouk publishing house, to the left of the statue is the legendary Groppi's Cafe, whose charm has eroded over the years, and above it is the Greek Club - a meeting place not only for the remaining members of the Greek community in Cairo, but also for Egyptian intellectuals and intelligence agents who come to monitor conspirers.

But Madbuli's is the first place to go to for all book lovers, from those looking for the latest cutting edge book, to those reading religious texts or translations of Israeli books.

Visitors to the crowded two-story shop, which has a giant stock warehouse around the corner, will have a hard time finding their way around. Although Madbuli divided the store up with sections for science and history, poetry on the lower floor and dictionaries on the mezzanine level/stairwell, in order to get a specific book, visitors require the assistance of the sales staff.

Because there is no catalogue or computer here, receipts are handwritten, in a booklet with pieces of carbon paper inserted in it, and the list of the thousands of books in stock can be found only inside the workers' heads.

Madbuli, who passed away about 10 days ago at the age of 70, knew his customers well, even those who came to his store just once or twice a year. "How is Professor Somekh," he used to ask me," how is Professor Rosenbaum doing? And how is Yoram from Ben-Gurion University?" Sometimes he would mention Israelis he knew only by their first names, who showed up in his store in 1979 or 1983.

Madbuli did not hesitate to state out loud that many Israelis bought books from him, even when members of the Muslim Brotherhood were among his customers. Just as he felt no discomfort selling "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" alongside books about Zionism or translations of Israeli books. He was the first to distribute Alaa al-Aswani's controversial book, "The Yacoubian Building" but did not permit the sale of two of the books by feminist Nawal El Saadawi. Madbuli was not moved by the censorship orders but also self censored. He said a "selection committee," which meets each year in the spring, made the decisions about the books his publishing house would release, but he never committed to accepting the committee's recommendations.

Even though he had no formal education and his life a salesman began when was eight and worked in his father's kiosk, Madbuli had an instinct for books that are worth selling, even if he did not agree with their authors' ideas.

For example, he made the courageous decision to publish Hamed Nasser Abu Zaid, a renowned researcher of Islam who was accused by radical Islamic circles of being a heretic. A suit filed against him by an Islamic attorney in 1993 ended with a conviction and court ruling calling on Abu Zaid's wife to get divorced, because a Muslim woman cannot be married to a heretic.

Around 30 legal suits were filed against Madbuli for publishing books with content that could be deemed offensive to the state or the religion, but he was never convicted. By some assessments, his vast connections with government officials and opposition figures that he developed over the years immunized him against legal convictions. These did not help him when President Sadat decided in the 1970s to close his newspaper kiosk because he sold poetry collections by the sharp-tongued, popular poet Ahmed Fuad Nigam.

As a whole, it seemed that the history of Madbuli's kiosk and the type of books later sold in his store and by his publishing house are milestones in the history of Egypt. From the 1930s and 1940s, when his father earned his living from the sale of foreign language newspapers, to the economic crisis that struck the kiosk after the 1956 Sinai Campaign, when many foreigners left Egypt and there was no one to buy the newspapers, to the era of Sadat and Mubarak, when the titles Madbuli published were evidence not only of what the state encouraged, but primarily of what it objected to.

During my last visit to Cairo, I went to Madbuli in search of one of the religious texts by an Islamic group that recently turned away from religion. "Don't have the book," was his exacting answer. "I carry books that sell. And anyway, what do you Jews want with books by Islamic radicals? You have your own."