Unfortunately for the 40th Cairo International Book Fair, which took place this week, it began during the recent days of cold and rain in Egypt. Some of the books were destroyed by water, and some of the stalls suffered from the small number of visitors, who stayed away because of the cold. Nor was the organization of the fair unusual by local standards: Egyptian journalists reported a lack of signage, surprise location changes and the fact that at the last moment, it was decided that the United Arab Emirates, rather than India, would be the "country of honor." India simply decided not to participate.
As usual, there was no lack of accusations that the authorities were boycotting books, accompanied by sweeping denials by government representatives. Some of the publishers, who are already familiar with this behavior from previous fairs, decided not to attend at all. But the real problem of this fair, which hosted 742 publishers from 28 countries, is the reading habits of Egyptian citizens in particular and residents of the Middle East in general.
A UNESCO report on the state of development in the Middle East found that while 600 titles are published for every million citizens in Europe, and 215 titles are published for every million American citizens, only 28 titles are published in the Arab Middle East.
But it's not only a matter of quantity, but also of quality. To judge by what sells best, it turns out that religious literature, and primarily radical religious literature, is in first place. At this book fair, for example, the top seller was a book by Saudi cleric Aaidh al-Qarni, who recently left a radical stream for the center. Al-Qarni's book "Don't Be Sad" has sold 2 million copies, about half a million of them in Egypt alone. This is a readable book that explains to the reader that he should not worry or fear the future. He must improve his ways now, because life is what happens to us on a day-to-day basis, and not only in eternity. The path to happiness, Al-Qarni says, is of course to pray to God and follow his commandments, but with a contemporary viewpoint.
When this is the type of book that sells well, while the Egyptian censor takes on such Western classics as "Zorba the Greek" and Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," as well as new Arabic books such as Ibrahim Badi's "Love in Saudi Arabia," which was banned from display at the fair, it is hard to see how such an event will attract young people.
But not only the censor is to blame. This time the fair was celebrating the 100th anniversary of Cairo University and Egyptian cinema. According to reports from the lectures and discussions held in honor of these events, it turns out that most of the speakers lamented the poor level of academic studies, lecturers' meager salaries, and the fact that over the past decades, Egyptian universities have not produced important intellectuals.
To be more precise, the academic institutions have become degree factories and a source of livelihood for thousands of lecturers who aspire for as many private students as possible, to supplement their income.
Nor can recent Egyptian cinema boast of any masterpieces. Although official censorship has declined somewhat, and some of the directors and producers have become more daring - they now deal with controversial subjects such as homosexuality, the status of women and street children - the cinematic output in general is in sharp decline. Egypt's status as the center of Arab cinema is now being threatened by Morocco, Syria and even Lebanon, which have been creating high quality modern cinema that receives prizes at Arab and international festivals, while Egypt is stagnating.
But instead of waking up, the government, via its "nationalist" press, has found a way to attack the decline. "One could say that the most dangerous organization in Egypt is the 'Organization for Spreading Frustration,'" wrote the Egyptian government newspaper Ruz al-Yusuf this week in its cover story. And which organization is that? Among others, the non-governmental media, the Arab (non-Egyptian) satellite stations, the Muslim Brotherhood and other "anti-government" organizations, which "are creating a culture of hopelessness and a lack of interest in current events, whether they be good or bad."
Nor are the government media outlets, which are supposed to provide the public with information about the government's activity, doing their job; they are thus leaving the field wide open to the Arab satellite stations such as Al Jazeera, which "spreads frustration and despair," the writer says. For example, "It quoted Palestinians from Gaza cursing us, when there were already 750,000 Palestinians in Sinai, including hated terrorists with explosive belts. Where was Egyptian public relations then?"
The writer, citing studies, states that 70 percent of Egyptian viewers do not even watch the first Egyptian channel, 100 percent of them watch Al Jazeera and almost 80 percent watch the non-Egyptian Arab networks, "which show only the bad things that happen in Egypt."
But not only the foreign television stations make the writer angry. The private local press, "which is called free," disseminates news items and rumors against the regime, such as the item published by Al-Dustur about President Hosni Mubarak's illness. And the national media outlets do not respond with reports about the prosperity in Egypt and the good things the government is doing. So the guilty party behind Egypt's problems has been found - now all that remains is to deal appropriately with the free press, and prosperity and happiness will once again dwell on the Nile.
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