Wednesday, December 15, 2010


A bookstore in the heart of Cairo transforms this ancient city’s cultural scene
If Diwan’s recommended reading list were anything to go by, it may serve as a barometer of just how diverse, opinionated and educated a society is. On a table at the bookstore’s Zamalek premises is a selection of books that include two by a U.S. President (one in Arabic), a well-know Egyptian female author, a frequently banned volume in the US and a book challenging the notion of who owns Egyptian antiquities.

"We’ve always felt free to think outside the box and we hope we can continue to have the conditions to do so. That is not to say that life is a rosy picture, but we try and focus on what can be done rather than what can't be,” explained Nadia Wassef, one of the co-owners of Diwan along with her sister Hind and Nihal Schawky.

No mere bookstore, Diwan is on a mission to transform cultural production and consumption in this ancient capital; one that has historically enjoyed a position as the intellectual center of the Arab World.

With an awe-inspiring selection of books and multi-media, a cozy café and an impulse section filled with a selection of stationary, Wassef describes Diwan as “a cultural retail experience.”

“It is more than simply titles on a shelf, but an environment that fosters the value of sharing knowledge and culture. We also wanted to make 'book culture' accessible to Egyptians by providing a venue for community gatherings that include discussions with authors, poetry readings and art exhibitions,” explained Wassef. “After decades of Socialism we need to start investing in culture to revitalize it. It’s the only way we can produce good publishers and writers by convincing people that books are more than a luxury.”

When the store was launched in 2002, Nadia refused to listen to pessimists who said it would have little impact on a society where the pursuit of culture and literature had fallen to the way side. “We were very aware that reading wasn’t a major priority within Egyptian society. It’s not that people don’t like reading in Egypt. But from my observations Egyptians are more likely to become reengaged in the habit of reading, if you provide them with an attractive venue to experience books and cultural production. That is why we put a lot of thought into creating a welcoming and attractive environment for the store,” she continued.

For Wassef, who has worked in the field of development and women’s rights, Diwan also serves as a space to empower women. “There are very few public spaces in Cairo where young women can feel safe and secure, without fearing that someone will approach them. Even though the bookstore is open to everyone it was important to create a space where women not only felt safe in their own skin, but had the freedom to grow intellectually. It’s not uncommon to see a woman sitting alone in Diwan’s café reading a book, which you don’t typically see in other parts of the city.”

Images courtesy of Diwan Bookstore

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