-Taken from the Guardian
-Cairo - May 2010
Mohammed Hashem's office seems an unlikely home for Egypt's nascent literary revolution: to find it you have to ascend a shabby set of stairs in a downtown Cairo apartment block shared by, among others, the Egyptian Angling Federation and an orthopaedic surgeon. It's a far cry from the slick headquarters of Egypt's biggest publishing houses. Yet on any given day it's here on Hashem's threadbare sofas that you'll find the cream of young Egyptian writing talent, chain-smoking cigarettes, chatting with literary critics and thumbing through some of the thousands of books stacked from floor to ceiling.
"We can't compete with the big firms in terms of profits, but the new wave of authors will always be sitting here," says the 52-year-old with a grin. "Yes, we have poverty and limited resources. But we also have the future."
In a nation boasting the literary heritage of Naguib Mahfouz and Taha Hussein, those are bold words. But if anybody is in a position to make such a claim, it is Hashem, who has spent the past decade watching his tiny business grow into one of the most critically successful publishers in the Middle East – and reshaping Egypt's cultural landscape in the process.
Founded 12 years ago as an alternative to what Hashem felt was a stifling and unimaginative book market, Merit publishing house has unearthed a string of star names that have taken the Arabic fiction world by storm. These include Alaa al-Aswany's The Yacoubian Building, which was rejected by two government-run publishing houses before being picked up by Merit and becoming a worldwide bestseller in Arabic and English, as well as a critically acclaimed film. More recently, Merit's willingness to take a gamble on unproven writers has helped fuel a new wave of Egyptian literature that is bringing some of the country's most marginalised communities to the fore.
"Merit has changed the way pioneering literature emerges in Egypt," says Hamdi Abu Golayyel, a former manual labourer from a Bedouin family who bagged the country's top literary prize – the Naguib Mahfouz medal – in 2008. "Before, you had the innovative writers – there are normally no more than five or six in a generation – meeting together in mutual isolation, because popular opinion rejected them. They would print their work on poor-quality paper and distribute it by hand to friends and colleagues. This is how the 60s generation and the poets of the 70s came out." Merit, says the 41-year-old, has changed all this. "They had the drive and ambition to support and distribute new and younger authors properly. Today innovative writing is wanted by the people."
Ahmed Alaidy, a 36-year-old former scriptwriter whose novel, Being Abbas el Abd, describes a dizzying descent into madness in Cairo's shopping malls, agrees. Along with Abu Golayyel, he typifies a fresh generation of novelists who are less concerned with the all-encompassing grand narratives of their predecessors and more interested in articulating the individual realities of day-to-day life in a chronically divided modern Egypt. Many hail from sections of society that have traditionally only been described from the outside. "I feel valued here," says Alaidy. "I had offers from bigger publishing houses but chose Merit because they offered me the freedom to write in my own way."
"Many of these writers are writing about groups to which they belong. Rather than just representing them, they're actually of them," says Samia Mehrez, professor of literature at the American University in Cairo. She cites Hani Abdel Mourid, who hails from Cairo's garbage-collecting neighbourhood of Manshiyet Nasr, and Mohamed Salah Al Azab, whose book Kursi Allab is named after the folding seats in Egypt's chaotic microbuses.
The catalyst for the emergence of many of these writers has been Cairo's changing urban dynamic; bordered for most of its 1,400-year history by the Moqattam cliffs to the east and the Giza pyramids to the west, the city is now expanding into the surrounding desert via "satellite cities". The flight of the upper-middle class to these gated communities, believes Mehrez, has given poorer social groups room to expand in the nation's cultural consciousness. "The fact that the city has grown the way it has, the fact that what we used to call the periphery is now the centre, that is very important," she claims. "That so-called periphery is now being imposed on the literary map."
For Merit and the young writers it is promoting, commercial success remains a challenge. Around 30% of the population is illiterate and by some estimates the average Egyptian reads a quarter of a page of a novel each year, meaning that sales of only a few thousand are enough for a book to qualify as a bestseller. But it's a challenge Hashem is relishing. "The year we started, we published five titles and the number of people interested could be counted in the dozens," he says. "Now we have 600 titles under our belt, and thousands are interested. It's my duty to try and expand that circle. We're chipping away at a wall, and slowly we're making progress."
Three Merit gambles that paid off
Ahmed Alaidy: Alaidy's cult hit Being Abbas El Abd is a Chuck Palahniuk-inspired rollercoaster ride through the insanity of modern Cairo. The book's English-language translator claimed it encapsulated "not only the private vision of an individual writer, but also the mental landscape of a whole generation".
Mansoura Ez Eldin: Born in 1976 in a small town in the Nile delta, Ez Eldin had her debut novel, Maryam's Maze, published by Merit in 2004. It won widespread acclaim for its depiction of a young girl's struggle to distinguish between dreams and reality; her latest work, Beyond Paradise, was shortlisted for this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction.
Khaled al-Berry: As a teenager from a middle-class secular family, al-Berry went from dreaming of girls and football to a life inside al-Gama'a al- Islamiyya, a violent Islamist group dedicated to the overthrow of the Egyptian government which carried out many of the atrocities that plagued Egypt throughout the 1990s. Al-Berry eventually renounced the group's ideology and wrote Life Is More Beautiful Than Paradise, a memoir of his experiences inside the organisation.