Foul for a Fool
Cairo's Soor el Azbakeya Book Market
Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Egyptians still have a very strong literary culture, and it seems from my own impressions that Egyptians read far more than Europeans do. It's not uncommon to find people reading books and newspapers in shisha cafes and bars, and Cairo is littered with hundreds of bookstalls and bookshops, often just books layn out on street corners. However, the heart of Cairo's literary scene is the Sook al Azabakeya, which translates as the Wall of Azabakeya. In the centre of Cairo, amidst the hustle of Ataba, are 130 wooden and iron bookstalls packed in together and bursting to the brim with books in every language and on every topic you can imagine. The book market is packed with customers most hours of the day, especially due to the fact that a busy metro entrance is placed dead in the centre of the busy market's small passageways. Many of the shops go back generations and the shop owners' love of books and dedication to keeping this important part of Egyptian culture alive is very self-evident. I have always been impressed by booksellers in-depth knowledge of their own stock as well as their fellow booksellers. Having enquired about certain books, I've been impressed by how the booksellers can straight away point me to the exact shop that will have the title I'm looking for. Originally, the location housed the Azabakeya Gardens, a beautiful and vast garden in the middle of the city and booksellers sold books along the railings of the garden, hence the name Wall of Azabakeya.
Under British occupation and for a short period afterwards until the 1952 revolution, booksellers had to deal with harsh suppression from authorities. Often, police, mostly at the behest of British commands, would chase away booksellers and even hose down their books with water so they were un-sellable. Following Egypt becoming a fully-independent nation, one of the first rulings was to legally recognise street sellers, enabling the Soor el-Azabakeya to flourish and soon become a formalized market with proper stalls. The book market has seen many influential and important poets, authors and even political figures throughout its years. Among the market's previous loyal customers, it is said that Naguid Mahfouz, Tawfik al-Hakim, Gamal al-Ghitani, and even Anwar Sadat and Gamel Abdel Nasser used to go there for their books. When you're there, have a browse through the books and be sure to pick up a copy of something. There's also plenty of books in English if you don't speak Arabic and some of the old Egyptian books have amazingly designed covers, which can make a great memento for your trip to the book market.