Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller

Nadia Wassef

Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller
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Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller

Nadia Wassef

The streets of Cairo make strange music. The echoing calls to prayer; the raging insults hurled between drivers; the steady crescendo of horns honking; the shouts of street vendors; the television sets and radios blaring from every sidewalk. Nadia Wassef knows this song by heart.


In 2002, with her sister, Hind, and their friend, Nihal, she founded Diwan, a fiercely independent bookstore. They were three young women with no business degrees, no formal training, and nothing to lose. At the time, nothing like Diwan existed in Egypt. Culture was languishing under government mismanagement, and books were considered a luxury, not a necessity. Ten years later, Diwan had become a rousing success, with ten locations, 150 employees, and a fervent fan base.

Frank, fresh, and very funny, Nadia Wassef’s memoir tells the story of this journey. Its eclectic cast of characters features Diwan’s impassioned regulars, like the demanding Dr. Medhat; Samir, the driver with CEO aspirations; meditative and mythical Nihal; silent but deadly Hind; dictatorial and exacting Nadia, a self-proclaimed bitch to work with-and the many people, mostly men, who said Diwan would never work.

Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller is a portrait of a country hurtling toward revolution, a feminist rallying cry, and an unapologetic crash course in running a business under the law of entropy. Above all, it is a celebration of the power of words to bring us home.

Review

Let me tell you where I have been this week – Cairo! Jealous? Of course, but the good news is you can go too. I loved the visit: it was hot, culturally interesting, and I browsed a wonderful bookshop, but it was the fantastic guide who made it all possible – Nadia Wassef. Nadia, her sister, Hind, and their friend, Nihal, decided to open an independent, modern, general bookshop in Cairo, named, Diwan. They had no business or bookselling experience. What they did have was a good education, privilege, a love of literature and a brazen confidence. But would this be enough?

Historically, Egypt’s bookshops mostly promoted propaganda and were stocked with poorly manufactured books. When Diwan opened in 2002, things were changing in this patriarchal country and Diwan’s owners wanted their store to reflect this. There were naysayers who advised that they were ‘bourgeois housewives’ wasting their time and money, that Egyptians didn’t read anymore and there was too much poverty, people couldn’t afford books. Not exactly a promising environment, but Nadia felt strongly that culture was too important to relinquish.

So, these three women with different temperaments and strengths powered up this modern enterprise, each using her skills for different facets of the business. All three engaged in combative cooperation and they made mistakes, they learnt – oh boy, they learnt – and in a country where bribery and corruption are standard business practices, they ran an honest establishment with passion and erudition as its foundation. It was a success, and the bookshop and the café prospered. Then they made the classic mistake of expanding too quickly and they weakened their brand and their resilience. They had weathered so much, and their lives were being taken over by Diwan.

Nadia Wassef is an intelligent and honest chronicler who is staunchly feminist, fiery but fair, never boring and made me laugh at her forthright manner. Go on, do yourself a favour – go to Cairo.


Alexa Dretzke is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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