Running a bookshop is generally not a thrilling enterprise. However, in Chronicles of a Cairo bookseller, Egyptian author Nadia Wassef has pulled off a charming combination of memoir, business basics, historical and socio-political survey of Egypt from her bookshelf aisles.
Diwan was the first ever modern bookshop in Cairo, started in 2002 by the spirited 27-year-old Wassef, her private and fiercely loyal sister Hind, and their spiritually inclined friend, Nihal.
At a time when book writing, publishing, printing and retailing were weighed down by decades of state failure and political censorship, many wondered why any sane person would “invest money in the losing venture of bookselling.” As book-loving bourgeois housewives with no business experience, the three did not need a shop to sustain themselves.
Wassef and her partners defy the odds to pioneer a new way of bookselling and invigorate the reading culture. Diwan means a meeting place, a guest house, a collection of poetry or a sofa. The name was coined at a restaurant lunch by their mother who was uninspired by their ideas for a shop name and eager to return to her meal.
Diwan Bookstore opened in the affluent island neighbourhood of Zamalek where Wassef grew up. It became known for an extensive selection of contemporary Arabic and Western world books but is also popular for its welcoming ambiance, cleanliness, décor, professional staff, and café.
The sections of the shop are the chapter titles where Wassef not only explains their choice of books but deftly segues into Egyptian history, politics and culture. Egypt Essentials, classics, cookery, business, pregnancy and parenting, and, her least favourite, self-help. Each chapter is a mini-lesson on ancient Egypt, the colonial era, the post-independence decline, the Arab Spring and the Egyptian revolution. "If Egyptians became alienated from who we were, we’d never know who we could be," writes Wassef.
Entertaining is the variety of people that walk through Diwan’s doors, a mix of regulars, friends, family, floaters, undercover call girls and thieves.
Amusing as well is the literary culture, where some customers come in to buy books while others expect to borrow books like a library, puzzled that you cannot return an uninspiring read.
Over the years, the flagship store expanded into an enterprise of 16 outlets, not always profitable, yet ground-breaking, nonetheless. Each of the three women brought their special personality and talent into managing the store and staff, balancing benevolence with tyranny, with plenty of behind-the-scenes disagreements yet holding onto their founding purpose and vision. Diwan became a status symbol, the branded shopping bags carried with pride around the city.
Aside from Wassef, the second protagonist of the story is Egypt. Through her descriptive storytelling, we delve into the city’s everyday life and history. We grind through chaotic traffic, feel the tension of gender discrimination, understand the vast divide of the haves and have-nots, and comprehend the pain of dealing with government bureaucracy where male intervention is usually needed even for female entrepreneurs to deal with state officialdom.
Wassef, who now lives in London, is from Egypt’s upper class. Of Muslim and Coptic heritage, she received a private education in English at an international school, and was raised to embrace religious tolerance and ‘otherness’. Nevertheless, she examines mainstream life in Egypt for the majority of people.
We meet Samir, her driver, an essential in Cairo, who is an expert road navigator, grocery shopper, bills payer, provider of unsolicited opinions and “the only man who had ever been useful to her” besides her father. Sabah, her housekeeper and primary breadwinner of her family in a country where 30 percent of households are headed by women.
Wassef is equally as frank about her shortcomings, describing herself as a bitch with a propensity for foul language. She frankly discusses rigours of entrepreneurship, the challenges of motherhood, her fear of cooking, her two husbands named number one and number two, and compares birthing experiences with her mother. Not brought up to be docile, many of her male staff, she writes, struggled with her forceful style, loud voice and unveiled head that was incompatible with the model of respectable womanhood.
Chronicles is a perceptive, humorous and honest story of running a business as a woman in a very demanding environment. As a heartfelt memoir, the book is Wassef’s “love letter to Diwan”, which was her love letter to Egypt.