Nadia Wassef has seen a lot in her 40-odd years. Born in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, she was seven in 1981 when the Muslim Brotherhood murdered President Anwar Sadat before deputy Hosni Mubarak became Egypt’s president. She was 37 when the Arab Spring unseated the dictator in 2011. A year after Abdel Fattah el-Sisi took power in 2014, she moved to the UK.
She has immortalized the experience in her book, Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, to be published on October 5 — the German edition was released on September 13 as Jeden Tag blättert das Schicksal eine Seite um (Every Day, Fate turns a Page).
The idea of a bookshop
The inspiration for the store came at a time when Wassef felt depleted and frustrated. “Our father had passed away after a very long and hard illness,” she told DW.
Then at a dinner with friends, she was asked a question: “If you could do anything, what would you do?”
Wassef and her sister spoke in unison, saying they would open a bookshop. “I remember, that night we sat there dreaming about it,” she said. “Hind, my sister, said: ‘It’s not going to be any kind of bookstore, every shelf has to count, every book has to make a contribution.’”
As recounted in Shelf Life, the name Diwan was suggested to the co-founders by their mother Faiza. The word, Faiza explained, meant an anthology of poems in Persian and Arabic, but also stood for a place where people gathered. It is used to connote a guesthouse, and even an elegant couch for sitting.
Diwani was also a word used to describe Arabic calligraphy, said Faiza, adding that the word would be easy to pronounce for English, French and Arabic speakers. Diwan was born.
Opened in 2002 as the only independent bookstore of its kind in Egypt, Diwan soon became a massive success. Within a decade it had stores in ten locations and around 150 employees. This all despite a revolution unfolding in the country.
Women doing business in Egypt
Wassef’s chronicle of the bookstore is a testimony of the times. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen revolutions, we’ve seen a financial meltdown, we’ve seen another revolution,” Wassef said. She is referring to the Arab spring that began in 2011, the brief democratic government that saw the Muslim Brotherhood governing the country, and the ascent of the country’s current leader, El Sisi.
Wassef said she wrote the book, not only to better understand “my relationship with the city and the bookstore,” but to celebrate “a Cairo that existed 20 years ago.”
She describes the bookshop as “like a sister you might not get along with anymore, but you hold on to her because you know the two of you are the only people who have the same memory.”
Diwan was also her way of tackling stereotypes, especially the idea that women in Egypt had problems doing business.
“Tell me how do men deal with being men [in business],” said Wassef, who decided that she wouldn’t let these conventions get in her way.
“And I think when you operate from that mindset, you keep marching on,” she said, adding that her biggest challenge was a universal one: dealing with bureaucracy.
The importance of a bookstore
When the Arab Spring came in 2011, it was not, on the one hand, conducive to business.
“When you’re in the middle of a revolution and you don’t know whether people are staying home or going out, whether suppliers will deliver,” she recalled.
But on the other hand, bookstores like Diwan, with curated shelves and an adjacent café, thrive on discussions and ideas, on freedoms she says are restricted in El Sisi’s Egypt.
Wassef tries to steer away from the black-and-white nature of politics: “The problem of human beings is that we think in dualities. We think in opposites because it’s easy. Unfortunately, easy answers are lovely, but they don’t give you very much.”
That is partly why Diwan sold not only Arabic, but also English, French and German books, signifying a dialog between cultures rather than a “clash of civilizations” — as in Samuel Huntington’s landmark book of the same name.
Bookshops “are important in our lives,” said Wassef, because they are sometimes the source of an irreplaceable community that can’t be found via the click of an online order button.
“Bookstores anchor us, they help us to travel safely, because you can come back,” she added. “You go and you return. And this is one of the things that is extremely empowering.”
Shelf Life is therefore a “homage to books and bookstores.” And, like Egypt, Diwan has certainly seen more than its fair share of change.
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