A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, September 10, 2012

Nabi Daniel: Outrage Continues as Government Backs Away

Last Friday, I noted the destruction of booksellers' kiosks in Nabi Daniel Street in Alexandria, and expressed my disgust. So has much of Egypt's literary community and anyone who loves books and the joy of browsing used book carts. There has also been widespread backlash against President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood, though it is far from clear that they instigated or were aware of the raid. The police have reportedly apologized (a sentence never uttered in Mubarak's Egypt) and pledged to improve matters. It looks like it may be a case of overreach and bureaucratic screwup, or perhaps they're trying to cover their tracks by making it sound like it. Ahram Online's piece is a curious blend of "they deserved it," "it never happened," and "besides, we're going to make it good." To wit: it was only about unlicensed bookstalls; only eight out of 40 were destroyed (other reports say 16, and say they were legally licensed); and besides, it was all a bit mistake. Also, the Muslim Brotherhood can't have been behind it, since religious books were destroyed, too! (So does that make it all right?) This mix of the defensive and the exculpatory is not so pronounced in Egypt Independent's story, which makes it sound, however, as if the authorities are going to buy off the booksellers by setting them up again.

Trashed Text: Islamic Religious Education
Now, admittedly, when the Syrian Government is systematically slaughtering its own people, when Gaza remains under siege and tensions run high in many places, it may seem out of place to become overly upset about the destruction of bookstalls, especially in a region where censorship is endemic. But books are (as the recently deceased Ray Bradbury recognized in his classic, Fahrenheit 451), the ultimate defense against tyranny, and the first target of the tyrant: the Nazi book-burnings were a prelude to the literal burnings of people. Maybe this will turn out to be a bureaucratic screwup or maybe it is the prelude to something worse, but whatever the reason, there are going to be a lot of people justifiably alarmed by the sight of books scattered in the street.

I spent many a day in the 1970s lingering over the bookstalls along the fence of Ezbekiyya Gardens in Cairo. Those bookstalls have been uprooted and relocated and then returned to Ezbekiyya during the building of various flyovers, bypasses, and in the 1990s the underground tunnels for the Metro. But they have survived. Now, Ezbekiyya's analog in Alexandria, the bookstalls of Nabi Daniel Street, whve been attacked. The images or books thrown about in the street, however, has outraged book lovers throughout Egypt and brought protests from the country's literary community. See some of the Twitter and literary comment at Global Voices Online and at Arabic Literature (in English). The comments at Nervana are also definitely worth reading, whether or not Islamists turn out to have had any role. And it's worth revisiting the sadly prophetic piece I linked to recently by Khaled Fahmy on "The Tragedy of Books in Egypt."

"Used book markets around the world": Paris, Boston, Bandung, Tokyo. The center photo is labeled "Alexandria, Egypt."

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