The Cairo Stop: New Ideas in an Ancient World

The Cairo Book Fair, the second largest book fair in the world, is an amazing event -- vendors sprawl through dozens of exhibition halls as visitors come in droves. If only Book Expo America were like this.
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It's been a month since I checked in on my Middle East tour for the Arabic version of Gay Travels in the Muslim World, when I was still in Beirut. I have been to several places doing book events and talks since, but I am writing this now from the last official stop: Cairo. Some of the countries I have previously been in, I am revisiting, and will file from again before finally leaving the region.

I timed my trip for the Cairo Book Fair, the second largest book fair in the world, after Frankfurt. It's an amazing event -- vendors sprawl through more than two dozen exhibition halls on the Cairo Fair Grounds, and families come in droves. If only Book Expo America were like this. It's a mix of famous Egyptian writers doing events, like Alaa Al Aswani, of The Yacoubian Building, to a strong showing of Koran publishers from across the region. Images of President Mubarek hang from buildings and stands, including his sunglass covered face superimposed over the pyramids.

Cairo is different from Beirut, as my publisher, Nabil Mroue of Arab Diffusion reminds me when I come to visit him at his stand and ask about whether he brought copies of Gay Travels in the Muslim World in with him, knowing I would be at the book fair. He has not, he tells me, fearful that this book in his shipments might lead to all of them being seized. I hear similar sentiments from other publishers I know about the strong censorship problems. Some have told me their books are sitting in the airport, and they'll have to take them back when they leave, unseen by the Cairo public.

I am disappointed, but understanding. I have been here a few days in Cairo I had already told bookstores and others that they'll be able to talk with Nabil about distribution. He might not have brought copies with him, so I give him one of my own to keep as a sample for people I have sent his way.

Knowing of the censorship problems, and indeed the severe repression of gay rights issues in Egypt -- anyone who can recall the arrest and torture of the 52 Egyptian men from the Queen Boat in 2001 knows what I am talking about -- I never expected to hold a reading here. However, at the Beirut Book Fair, I met Mohammed Sharkawi, a publisher and activist.

He asked me to have an event in his bookstore which has books by his publishing house Malamih and other publishers. By the time I reach Cairo, we decide instead to hold it in El Balad Books, in their branch off Tahrir Square, next to the American University of Cairo's downtown campus. We make the choice after finding out the bookstore has done well with the gay themed Egyptian book "In the World of Boys," by Mostafa Fathi, a clear breakthrough book in the country, published by Shabab Books.

In just a few days, the event is set, with a date, some publicity and a Facebook page with 2,000 people invited. About 70 RSVP, with plenty of maybe's. I had been told this could never happen in Egypt, and I am still warned the government could shut down the event. To the contrary, the day arrives, and I have a turn out of 30-40 people, many of whom came early.

It's a mix of Egyptians, American and European ex-pats, and a few journalists, eager to cover the event, along with a gay couple from my hotel who recognized me from my C-Span Book-TV talk. I tailor my spiel for Egypt, covering the much discussed possible homosexuality of Mohammed Atta, the Egyptian terrorist who flew one of the planes into the Twin Towers on September 11, to the Queen Boat and the Cairo 52, to the state of gay rights in the country now, some locals commenting crackdowns seem an up and down issue over the past several years. We also talk about the several stories touching on Egypt in the book, especially that by the gay Egyptian American actor Remy Eletreby who writes on coming out within his community after playing a gay Arab in a stage production. At first the audience is hesitant to ask questions, but once a local journalist starts it rolling, the Q&A lasts more than an hour, touching on issues everyone told me could never be discussed in a public forum in Egypt. Through it all, the audience jokes about whether State Security has sent a spy. Of course, it could always be the case, or perhaps, they have chosen to simply ignore I am here.

The tough thing about the event was that I had no books to sign, just copies of Gay Travels in the Muslim World in both English and Arabic to show. This of course is the heart of the censorship issue in Egypt - my own publisher's fear, and the fact that distribution in a place like Egypt is not as simple for any foreign book touching on an even slightly controversial theme as it is in the West. El Balad will carry the book once it gets its hands on copies, as will Malamih. Since the English version of the book came out in 2007, I have had talks with American University about carrying it in their stores, and now, proving what can be done, I have continued the discussion.

I go out after the night is over with my friend Ruth, an American who has moved to Egypt to bellydance, under the Arabic name Aleya. She and her dance troupe performed at my Los Angeles event in 2008. Another American friend joins us, along with Mohammed, and we head to dinner on the Nile, in one of the many nightclub boats anchored in the eternal river. It's a beautiful evening, with music, a full moon, and a sense of accomplishment. Still, the men known as the Cairo 52, arrested in a similar boat on a perhaps equally beautiful evening, come frequently into our conversation. I know in spite of what seems the success of my talk this evening, I am under no illusions. Egypt still remains a place with problems for the local LGBT community.

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