The Definitive Guide to Living in the Capital , Cairo , Egypt

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Azbakiya Book Quarters in Attaba: Alive and Selling

Azbakiya Book Quarters in Attaba: Alive and Selling
written by
Marcus Benigno
In recent decades, Cairo may have ceded its title to Beirut as the region’s publishing powerhouse, but books bought and sold still thrive in the capital. A visit to the Azbakiya booksellers in Ataba Market affords a continuous glimpse of Cairo’s highly literate, literary past. 

Just off the north-east entrance of
Attaba Metro station, the next best thing to a dusty archive for used-book lovers in Cairo
sprawls across narrow rows of some 132 bookstalls. The white nooks crowned by
bronze-like spades resemble temporary tents in a regal caravan or a festive
outdoor bazaar, each with its own character and bookseller to match.

In one, the son of a bookseller
flips through a picture book surrounded wall-to-wall with pink children’s books,
and in another, a man dressed in a galabeya recites verses from the Quran. And
still in another, a man in tight skinnies sits in front of his laptop with his
speakers blasting pop and a rainbow marquee above him that reads ‘books’ in

But no matter which seller you
choose, the bookstalls are replete with old and new sets of encyclopaedias, religious guides,
software manuals and cheap thrillers, as well as classic tomes like John Milton’s
Paradise Lost and college textbooks
like the fat edition of the medical cornerstone Nelson’s Textbook to Paediatrics. Primarily, the bookstalls at
Azbakiya are popular with doctors, engineers, and students in search for specific
texts that cost up to 10 times less than at a chain bookshop or online.

For the last eight years, Eslam
Fathi has been managing five bookstalls at Azbakiya and says that business is
surprisingly good; and despite the age of the Internet – with its e-books and
credit-card pay sites that pose a threat to the bookselling profession –  Egyptians
fall behind the trend, he says.

Call them Luddites or profiteers,
there’s an undeniable gratification from plying the bind of a book against one’s
palms and delving into a story and flipping page after page until its
completion. And still for others, the appeal of secondhand bookshops is
comparable to antique shops. Books as props, books as décor. A host of cafés and
coffee shops in Cairo display random, antiquated texts for that added homey

With the occasional Greek,
French, or German cover appearing, the titles at Azbakiya are mainly in Arabic
or English. The stalls themselves are generally unkempt, and the books, for the most part poorly organized.
But isn’t that part of the fun? Customers are forced to explore the heaps of
paperbacks and hardbacks with some that date back as far as the cosmopolitan
era. Shifting through the texts could take hours. Luckily, the stalls are open
10AM to 10PM daily excluding Fridays.

But beware. While originals are
also available at low prices, some books are cheap copies stamped out, barely legible
and masked by seemingly authentic covers. So judge not by the cover, and open up and take a gander. Employing our keen bartering skills,
we managed to haggle down to 40LE with Carl Jung’s Four Archetypes and 20LE for T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom – both original copies in good condition.

The corridors that cut through Azbakiya are peaceful relative to the bustling alleys of the greater
market area and are worth the visit. Aside from books, old magazines, and vintage film posters,
prints and postcards are also sold and make better souvenirs and gifts than a
camel key chain or a lousy sphinx and pyramid tee.