Kim Echlin, author of Under the Visible Life, attended Cairo Literature Festival last month. Here are five things she learned.

This year’s Cairo Literature Festival welcomed eighteen writers from the Middle East, Europe and North America. The theme was “Women and Literature” with panel discussions ranging widely over questions of liberty and quests for freedom, as well as panels on translation and publishing. It was hosted by the inimitable Mohamed El-Baaly, publisher of Sefsafi Books, and took place in venues across the crowded metropolis, in a beautiful and ancient hall in the old market, Khan al-Khalili, down an alley in the funky Rawabat Theatre, up six floors in a charming cage elevator to get to the Doum Cultural Centre, and behind the columned entrance of the gorgeous Grand Library of Cairo in Zamalek in the middle of the Nile.

Five Fantastic Things about the Cairo Literature Festival 

1. Events take place in an amiable mix of Arabic and English and French, supplemented this year by Slovenian, Norwegian, German and Dutch. I was the beneficiary of many whispered translation as people slipped in to help. A notable one was by Ahmed Salah Eldein (Arabic translator of Nobel Prize winner, Svetlana Alexievich) who translated for me a poetry reading by Syrian poet, Rasha Omran. It is no small accomplishment to translate poetry on the fly, and I was delighted not only to ‘feel’ the poetry as the poet read, but to see her imagery through the murmured words in my ear. Thank you to each of you who gave us access to these Arabic readings.

2. The festival is a hub for profound cultural work taking place in Egypt, often against great odds as organizers deal with funding constraints and government obstruction. Writers meet cultural workers such as Abdelrahim Youseff, director of the Gudrun Cultural Centre that is making room for youth to explore the arts. 

3. Writers can meet Syrian poets, Egyptian cartoonists, and Cairo’s literary students who will take them for “smoking ice cream” and Syrian fries and talk about Virginia Woolf and French critical theory. Writers can climb a minaret at noon and listen to men’s voices across the city, inviting the people to pray, to put aside for a moment struggles and sorrows and joys of their lives in this fabled, impoverished, vibrant city.

4. There is time to look around. Outside the city of 20.5 million are the silent pyramids of Saqqara, empty of people, haunting against ghostly sands and golden sky. At the centre of Cairo is the graffiti in Tahrir Square--  المجد للمجهولين    (“Glory to the unknown”)-- written over darkly painted images of contemporary faces of protest. You can see also the “City of the Dead,” the el’erafa, an Islamic necropolis below the Mokattam Hills in southeastern Cairo. Here, living among the tombs, the people can make gardens.

5. The best part of the day is when the readings and panels are done and you wander out to enjoy the night. You turn down an alley to an outdoor café for tea with mint and a perhaps a shisha water pipe and are wrapped into the immense sociability and ancient promise of Cairo.

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