Despite hardships, head of Egypt’s book organisation holds on to optimism

The latest Cairo International Book Fair attracted an unprecedented number of publishers.
Sunday 22/04/2018
Haitham al-Hajj, head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation. (GEBO)
Limits and promises. Haitham al-Hajj, head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation. (GEBO)

CAIRO - A lack of funding is making publication of some of Egypt’s best cultural works almost impossible, Haitham al-Hajj, head of the General Egyptian Book Organisation (GEBO), warned.

“We receive dozens of texts that can make the best books but we are incapable of publishing them because we do not have enough money for this,” Hajj said.

GEBO, one of Egypt’s biggest publishers, is the executive arm of Egypt’s Ministry of Culture and well-known among the country’s authors, poets and playwrights as a last recourse for works viewed as commercially non-viable by private publishers.

At a time when poetry, in particular, is viewed as not profitable to publish, GEBO is a haven for Egypt’s poets. Egyptian intellectuals, writing on a wide range of topics from human psychology to history and philosophy, also view GEBO as a sanctuary.

Over the decades, GEBO has made cultural stars of dozens of authors whose works had earlier been rejected by private publishing companies over a perceived lack of commercial viability.

GEBO was founded in 1952 and has offices in several Egyptian cities, with headquarters in Cairo overlooking the Nile. The organisation has an annual budget of $5.8 million, which comes directly from the government. However, almost 70% of the budget goes towards salaries of the staff, echoing Egypt’s bloated state bureaucracy.

“This means that we have to make do with the remaining part of the budget,” Hajj said. “We have to use this remaining part in publishing the texts we receive into books and organising book fairs all year-round.”

More than half the texts the organisation receives and approves are waiting for funding to be published. GEBO uses specialised panels whose members decide whether the limited resources of the organisation should be used to publish a book.

“These panels have approved a lot of texts but only a fraction of these texts has been published due to lack of funding,” Hajj said.

The rise in the price of paper and printing costs pose a problem, he said.

Nonetheless, there are rays of hope for Hajj and GEBO.

The latest Cairo International Book Fair, the organisation’s most important cultural event, which took place January 27-February 10, attracted an unprecedented number of publishers.

More than 800 publishers from every part of the world, Hajj said, participated in the event. The organisation also posted record sales of $124,000, he added.

Hajj acknowledged that, while the sales cannot be compared with those made by private publishers, GEBO’s remit is not to make profit but ensure that worthy but overlooked titles make it onto the shelves.

GEBO, as a state-run publishing house, sells books at subsidised prices that are a fraction of the cost of publishing to ensure that its titles are affordable. GEBO’s books cost 3-5 Egyptian pounds ($0.17-$0.28). A book from a private Egyptian publisher would usually cost ten times as much. The difference contributes to GEBO’s financial issues.

Despite the frustrations, Hajj and his colleagues work to keep Egypt an important literary and cultural hub. More writers and thinkers are turning to GEBO with impressive manuscripts despite financial constraints.

“True, we do not have enough money to publish all the texts that come to us but the fact that all these people are writing wonderfully proves that Egypt’s cultural lights still glow,” Hajj said.

Interest in reading is, he said, very high nationwide and Cairo is doing more to combat illiteracy in the country.

“I have seen this interest [in reading] at the more than a hundred book fairs that GEBO organises nationwide all year-round, including the Cairo International Book Fair,” he said.

It is not just Egyptian writers who are turning to GEBO for publication but also Arab writers from across the region, Hajj said.

“These people come here, knowing that Egypt is still an important cultural powerhouse,” Hajj said. “True, we have problems but we also have the minds to ensure a cultural reawakening and that is everything.”