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When Egyptian literary agent Khaled Abbas suggested that owners of department stores, gas stations, fast food joints and restaurants sell books at their establishments, they thought he was kidding. But Abbas surprised them. Customers who frequent these places are willing to pay more for books, as well as other merchandise.

"People who are willing to pay a few hundred extra Egyptian pounds to eat at an upscale restaurant or shop at a supermarket won't think twice about spending another 20 pounds on books," Abbas explained in an interview with Egypt's literary newspaper, Akhbar Al-Adab. These venues are developing a "passion for pretentiousness," he explained, adding that clientele who wish to show their interest in literature to their spouses stop to browse the shelves.

This is one project designed to address the fact that few Egyptians read. The 39th annual Cairo International Book Fair opens today, and will host representatives of 26 nations, including 16 Arab countries, and 667 publishers, of whom 514 are Egyptian and none are Israeli.

The large number of publishers does not mean that many books are sold in Egypt. Though there is no precise data, an estimated 9,000-12,000 titles are published each year. Sales figures range from a few dozen to a few thousand copies per title.

No great hopes

The large number of visitors at the fair (about 1.5 million last year) also fails to guarantee prodigious sales. "For residents, this is just another place to spend a day or two in a cultural atmosphere," explains Issa Amaru, who works at a small publishing house that mainly publishes books of modern poetry. "We do not have great hopes for sales in Egypt. People here have stopped reading. They watch television and listen to ringtones. Perhaps there will be interest in other Arab countries."

Poets in all the Arab nations lament the dwindling number of publishers willing to put out books of poetry. However, publishers provide some compensation in the burgeoning number of new Internet sites devoted to the subject. This is not true in the case of children's literature: Despite the enormous potential market, most publishers prefer to translate proven Western winners. Writers who devote their time and creativity solely to writing Arabic children's literature quickly learn they cannot earn a living doing so. In a region where 45 percent of the population is under age 14, the lack of young readers means that future generations may not read and educate themselves.

While the Web represents an alternate path to literacy in other parts of the world, the Middle East still lags behind: Internet penetration rates are less than 8 percent due to the lack of electricity and infrastructure, and the prohibitive price of computers in relation to local salaries, but mainly because people lack awareness and youth are not educated to use technology.

Reading is also compromised by publishing houses that prefer to sell "crates full of books to clients, wholesale," says Abbas. He says that even the literary agent is an innovation in Egypt. Egyptian authors typically sign contracts with publishing houses, which set the terms of their employment. Abbas says he persuaded a few writers to work with him to improve their conditions.

Abbas believes that his campaign via gas stations and department stores not only increases book prices, but also promotes reading. "We know that people who buy cheap books often fail to read them. They just put it off until a time that never comes," he explains. He believes that books with high price tags that befit their quality are immediately read.

Strictly books

Abbas has been working in the Egyptian market for only seven months, and his promotional strategy has yet to conquer the hearts of major publishers. They continue to use traditional methods, marketing books in stores or on Cairo sidewalks. The result is that the colossal piles of books at the fair attract less attention than the workshops and symposia. But this year, it appears that even symposia will fail to rouse the fair from its apathy.

"Why not deliberate the amendments the president wishes to make to the Constitution?" press representatives asked Dr. Nasser al-Nasri, director of the government-run General Publishing Authority, who is also responsible for the fair. Al-Nasri ignored the question. When asked why symposia fail to examine questions of religion and state, the hottest issue in modern-day Egypt, he evaded the question. "We have a symposium about Islam and the West. That addresses the issue," he said.

Al-Nasri has an impressive biography. He completed a doctorate at the University of Marseilles, and studied public administration at George Washington University. His acclaimed publications include an encyclopedia of Egyptian rulers from the time of the pharaohs, and a bibliography of criminology and police activity that is taught in schools.

Al-Nasri was appointed to lead the publishing authority last year. He understands that the distinguished position has as much to do with politics as with knowledge of literature and publishing, particularly regarding the book fair. As in previous years, the fair will open with the traditional president's address that inevitably strives to highlight the government's close ties with Egyptian intellectuals, some of whom are actually called "the government's intellectuals."

Al-Nasri decided to facilitate deliberation on a few central issues during the fair, including "Use of Nuclear Energy to Promote Peace," a subject Iran pushed to the heart of Arab public discourse, and "Islam, the West and Civil Society." Topics to be discussed in symposia are chosen with rigor and sensitivity, as are participants. This is readily witnessed in Al-Nasri's evasion of reporters who believe there is no better place than the book fair to discuss the real issues facing Egyptians: religion and economic reform. They will apparently have to wait for some future fair.