“Every act of reading is historical,” commented writer and bookseller Nadia Wassef in a recent interview with The Lighthouse podcast. In her memoir, Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, Wassef makes the same argument about bookselling in Egypt, a country where she argues “the past lives within the present, often revisiting it in disguise and never fully disappearing.”
The richness of Wassef’s debut makes it a hard one to categorize. On the surface, it tells a story of a team of women — two sisters and a friend — whose love of literature compels them to create Diwan, Egypt’s first modern bookstore selling titles not only in Arabic but also in English, French, and German. Diwan is the central character in a compelling narration that is also a cultural history, a diary of an entrepreneur, a catalogue of the best of Egyptian literature, and a commentary on living and leading as women in a contemporary Egypt turbulent with change.
Diwan, a name first suggested by Wassef’s mother, means a collection of poetry in one translation, a meeting place or guesthouse in another. The experience of reading Shelf Life reflects this same dual meaning. Wassef’s tone is both lyrical and conversational, heartfelt, and honest. She organizes the memoir like the bookstore itself, taking the reader on a tour, first of the café and then of the various sections of the bookstore, among them Egypt Essentials, Cookery, Art and Design, Self-Help. I lived in Cairo from 2012-2014, during which I often visited Diwan’s location in the leafy suburb of Maadi. It was there I found and devoured the novels of Adhaf Soueif, Alaa Al Aswany, and Egyptian literary giant Naguib Mahfouz. Now with Shelf Life, Wassef provides American readers with the same curated recommendations I found browsing the tables.
Wassef opened Diwan’s first location on the upscale Nile island of Zamalek in the waning years of the Mubarak dictatorship. She, her sister Hind, and their friend, Nihal, experience the difficulties of running a business as women in a patriarchal country with a “tendency for censorship,” “pervasive uncertainty and endless delays,” and one that she argues serves as tools for government control. The threesome solves problems that sprout up as the business grows, and Wassef humorously recounts them: the country’s lack of ISBN numbers, customers who attempted to return books after reading them, and thieving employees. More seriously, Wassef peppers the narration with anecdotes of her own street harassment and countrymen with “a craving for Islamic hegemony that engenders a complete denial of difference, and of history itself.” Notable is the hesitancy of her more devout staff to sell Arabian Nights due to the text’s perceived pornographic content and a bureaucrat’s attempt to censor Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef. While not all of these challenges are unique to businesswomen, the reader senses the trailblazing nature of the operation.
A strength of Wassef’s writing is the ease with which she describes the textures of Egyptian life juxtaposed with critical commentary on its history and culture. The reader is immersed in sensory details — the “hot, traffic-choked streets,” the music of Umm Kulthum in a Diwan café, images of men smoking sheesha and playing backgammon on street corners. She also leads us in a discussion of the appropriation of ancient Egyptian history by Western writers (“Egyptians seldom write novels set in ancient Egypt”) and the impact of cultural colonialism on language: “My parents insisted we speak and write the three languages of Egypt’s more recent colonial history: Arabic, English and French.” In another chapter, she surmises the impact of Nasser’s socialism on national work ethic and admonishes the rise of contemporary mall culture. In some ways, the book is a subjective history lesson told by an old friend over coffee who has a penchant for F-bombs.
Running through Shelf Life is a narration of two Egypts. There is the Egypt of Wassef and her co-founders and the Egypt of their employees, the Egypt of the upper classes and the Egypt of the working poor, the Egypt of the secular and the Egypt of the devout — the bifurcation created by years of government corruption, incompetency and economic stagnation. Wassef clearly situates her privilege with her British education, domestic employees and easy access to US dollars through an American husband. However, she is able to depict the contours and contradictions of Egyptian life with sensitivity and specificity. In one poignant section, she details an encounter with a Salafist, a practitioner of a conservative, revivalist Islam, who propositions her for a business deal but refuses to shake her hand. Wassef astutely concludes the moment predicted a movement, the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and the surprise of that movement to the Egyptian upper class: “we all realized how little about our fellow Egyptians we really knew.”
At the book’s conclusion, Wassef’s class advantage is most striking. In June of 2014, when the hope of the Arab Spring was consumed by political violence and the return of military rule under General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Wassef was able to flee Cairo with her children. After spending so much time with Wassef, I was keen for her to discuss this turn of events for Egypt — and Diwan. How might the new dictatorship’s widely reported dawn arrests of journalists, dissidents and activists impact Egypt’s literary arts? And what did she think of the imprisonment of Egypt’s most prominent authors, Booker-nominated Adhaf Soueif? Perhaps a fear of the consequences should she decide to travel to or return to Egypt stifled any desire to comment. Either way, the current environment for writers in Egypt haunts the memoir’s conclusion.
Early in the book, Wassef recounts a conversation she had with her father about the world she was “beginning to understand kept women in their place.” Her father responds, “It’s a man’s world. Change it on your own time, but until then, learn to deal with it.” The creation of Diwan and the writing of Shelf Life seems to be a response to that challenge presented in her formative years — as if Wassef is saying, here is the change I created, here is a successful woman in a man’s world. It’s the triumph of her enterprise and the book.
Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller
by Nadia Wassef
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published October 5, 2021