Cairo’s historic Soor el-Azbakeya book market facing uncertain future

Sunday 03/12/2017
In jeopardy. A bookseller works at a shop in Soor el-Azbakeya book market. (Said al-Shahat)

Cairo - Wooden stalls of every colour, overflowing with books of every genre, can be found in a small alleyway in Cairo. The Soor el-Azbakeya book market is facing an uncertain future, how­ever, and booksellers are worried about their fate.

Borrowing its name from a nearby public park, the open-air book mar­ket has long been one of the literary centres of Cairo. Over the past cen­tury, the city’s most noted writers, opinion-makers, professors, men of letters and book lovers have vis­ited the cramped stalls in search of a new book. The small alleyway was frequently packed with customers and shopkeepers had trouble serv­ing all the customers.

Soor el-Azbakeya is only a shad­ow of its former self. Many book­stalls have closed and few passers-by spare more than a glance at the lonely booksellers. Sales are at their lowest point in decades, with the remaining booksellers facing the prospect of the market closing.

“Conditions have never been worse in this market in the last cen­tury,” said Hassan Tolba, a market seller in his early 60s. “The book in­dustry is dying here.”

Soor el-Azbakeya evolved natu­rally in the late 19th century in an alleyway close to some of Cairo’s most lively coffee shops, restau­rants and bars. These were also the common meeting places for Egypt’s intelligentsia and foreigners living in the Egyptian capital.

This was before the construction of the Attaba subway station, which in 1991 forced Soor el-Azbakeya to relocate to El Darasa, before return­ing in 1998.

Throughout the 19th century, booksellers would go to El-Az­bakeya district and haunt its coffee shops, restaurants and bars to sell their books to a generation of Egyp­tian writers and academics.

After a day’s work, the booksell­ers would retire to the El-Azbakeya Gardens where they would display their goods, using a nylon rope hung on the park fence as makeshift shelves.

The presence of the booksellers at the El-Azbakeya Gardens gates soon became well-known, with cus­tomers visiting from across the city. Soor el-Azbakeya means “the fence of el-Azbakeya” in Arabic.

Soor el-Azbakeya came to domi­nate Egypt’s cultural life, attracting not only general booksellers but traders in rare volumes as well. The list of its customers is endless and few of Egypt’s most prominent writ­ers, artists and academics of the last century would not have browsed its shelves.

Tolba went to Soor el-Azbakeya for the first time as a 10-year-old to assist his father with his bookselling business. Many of the other current booksellers are second- or third-generation custodians of their fam­ily businesses, who are despondent over the lack of demand.

“Nobody had ever expected this to happen,” he said. “This market was the nerve centre of book selling in this country.”

Soor el-Azbakeya now contains 133 booksellers, a fraction of the number it had at the height of its popularity.

In some ways, the deteriorating conditions of the market reflect the general decline of Egypt’s cultural life. At the national level, reading rates have dropped dramatically, which is reflected in the very low sale of books. The digital age has hurt the business, with many read­ers preferring to download their books online — often even for free on torrent sites — rather than to pay for print editions.

For Soor el-Azbakeya’s booksell­ers, the situation is reaching a criti­cal juncture.

“Our market was for years the only refuge for the poor who want­ed to buy books for low prices and for the cultural elite that could find books here they could never find anywhere else,” said bookseller Ibrahim Zaki.

The average price of a book is between 7-8 Egyptian pounds (40- 45 US cents) and 150-170 pounds ($8.50-$9.60). However, buyers with strong negotiating skills can earn a bargain.

Some of the market stalls special­ise in old and rare books, which de­mand higher prices.

Despite this, sales continue to de­cline. Zaki said that he is close to the stage that it was no longer financial­ly viable. Many other booksellers have already closed and sought jobs elsewhere.

“There is a bookstall closing in the market every day amid what looks to me like a gradual migration by both sellers and customers,” Zaki said. “This place could be totally over in a matter of a few months or years.”