Horizons of Renaissance'?

The international book fair that opened last week in Cairo, being held for the 37th time, can take pride in its improvements.

The very sign at the entrance - "Horizons of Reform and Renaissance" - makes one wonder. The facility has been refurbished and redesigned, and has quiet motorized carts that bring visitors from one pavilion to the next. The activities also arouse one's curiosity: lectures on literature and poetry, meetings with authors, gifts for guests. The international book fair that opened last week in Cairo, being held for the 37th time, can take pride in its improvements. When Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who as usual inaugurated the fair, asked how visitors to the fair would be protected against the wind and the rain, he received a satisfactory answer: there are wind barriers and awnings.

Some 27 countries - 16 of them Arab - are participating in this fair, to which Israel was not invited. The rewarming in relations between Egypt and Israel cools off when it comes to the Egyptian intellectual barons, who lord over the cultural ties and uphold the dictates of the Egyptian Journalists Association, the Egyptian Writers Union or the Egyptian Association of Film Writers and Critics, which forbid any contact with their Israeli colleagues. Anyone who dares violate these rules finds himself out of the unions - without the economic backing the unions provide their members.

Even so, the Egyptian fair is considered a major event in the Arab publishing world, whose main players wait every year to see which books will be disqualified by the censor and will be barred from the Egyptian book market. Some 2 million titles are being presented at the fair this year, by 516 publishers - fewer than participated last year, mainly due to screening by the fairs directorate, headed by Dr. Wahid Abd al-Magid. This screening was done to contain the literary flood that overwhelmed visitors and buyers at the fair in previous years.

The criteria for screening publishers and books are unclear, and are based mainly on the discretion of the authors' committee set up to plan the fair. These authors work not only in the shadow of the official censorship that governs the publication of books - censorship that is capable of removing even books that have been on bookstore shelves for years - but also under the whip of the religious censorship. The body in charge of this is Al-Azhar, the most important religious institution in Egypt, which has vast influence on religious legal rulings in most Arab countries.

Over the years, Al-Azhar has been granted the authority to decide which books could be considered an affront to Islam and which are permissible, which films are politically correct and which poems Egyptians can read without their authors being considered inciters.

Two years ago, for example, the Egyptian authorities banned the entry of "Zorba the Greek" by Nikos Kazantzakis and "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" by Milan Kundera, which had been translated into Arabic and which the Lebanese publisher Dar Al-Adab wanted to sell at the fair. The Egyptian authorities said at the time that the banning of the books was due to a misunderstanding regarding import duties, and not due to censorship.

Other books banned were those of Dr. Nawal El Saadawi and the 8th-century Iraqi poet Abu Nawas, due to a "religious affront." In the case of Abu Nawas' writings, the insult to Islam was two-fold: His poems were about love and wine, and he was also considered a homosexual. These issues had never prevented his writings from being sold in Egyptian bookstores for years, until someone in the Muslim Brotherhood noticed them and demanded their removal from the shelves.

If that trend continues, in another few years the "A Thousand and One Nights" might also me banned from the Egyptian book fair. This year readers can still enjoy these tales, which are being celebrated at the fair on the 300th anniversary since their translation into French. The fair's directors seem to have collected a few other important dates to provide cause for celebration. Alongside the ceremony in honor of "A Thousand and One Nights" will be special ceremonies marking 100 years since the birth of Jean Paul Sartre, 200 years since Mohammed Ali took over the rule of Egypt, and the 250th anniversary of famous Egyptian historian Al Jabarti. This is quite an eclectic collection of dates, since Al Jabarti detested the French occupation of Egypt, an occupation that was widely considered the beginning of the period of enlightenment in Egypt at least concerning contact with Western culture.

Mubarak also wants to establish the continuation of Egypt's connection with Western culture: He announced the allocation of 80 million Egyptian pounds ($11 million) for more translations of Western literature into Arabic and of Arabic literature into foreign languages. These funds will extend the literary project begun six years ago, which has so far produced translations of 800 foreign titles in Arabic.

Another new feature at this year's fair is the military literature section, which includes not only war literature and political and strategic analysis, but also military history quizzes that will be held every day of the fair, with books being awarded to the winners. Even those who do not participate in the quiz will receive a gift from the military booth: a puzzle of military personalities.

What about the theme of this year's fair, "Horizons of Reform and Renaissance?" Abd al-Magid explains that this year there is an emphasis on books about social reform and the multi-party and civilian society. These nice titles actually appear after Mubarak announced he has no intention of changing the constitution to allow candidates to run against him in this year's upcoming presidential elections.