Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller

“Against all odds, we had proven to our doubters and detractors that a modern bookstore could survive in Egypt … Though Diwan was not a huge financial success, it was a moral victory, an experiment in marketing, and a mastery of the will.” These are the words of Nadia Wassef, who, along with her sister, Hind, came up with the idea for a modern bookstore in Cairo.  Sharing dinner with friends, several were taken with the idea, and three more people (Ziad, Ali and Nihal) became part of this business adventure. The store called Diwan began in 2002. What began as one store in Cairo, expanded to more across Egypt. Starting an independent bookstore is no easy task, but doing so in modern Egypt presented more than the usual challenges, especially one opened by women, who had no business degrees or business plans, but did have a lot of moxie, determination and drive.

The three women bookstore founders faced more deterrents and complications in Cairo and in Egypt than women in other parts of the world. However, there are profound similarities about how women think they should be regarded, mostly by men, and also by other women, in order to be taken seriously in the world of business. There is one hilarious, touching and scathing event. It is Nadia's reaction to it, with which many women of various ages will indentify. On the street, outside Diwan, Nadia is heavily pregnant with her second child, and feels the intense gaze of a very young man. As she removes an earphone to better hear what he has to say, which is very personal and raw, she recounts how she felt, “Blood rushed to my ears. My vision faded to pulsating red blotches.  All I could feel was heat. I mustered as much force as my crippling rage would permit and yelled.” And she returned, in kind, with comments more overt than he or she could have imagined. "Everyone was suspended in time, speechless."  Gaining back some composure and calm, Nadia berates herself for being "a foul-mouthed wreck" and losing her decorum in front of her staff and anyone else who was in the store, or on the street.  Later that day, she meets with an old friend, regaling her with the details of the incident and how embarrassed Nadia felt. The friend erupts in bursts of laughter, and says, "For calling him out. Do you know how many times I've been harassed, and then told by well-meaning friends and family that responding would be unladylike?  Women need to talk back."  So Nadia, a businesswoman, who had been treated horrendously, and reacted, learned the following, "Curse words were like an arsenal of nuclear weapons:  when everyone knows you have them, you don't need to use them."

Nadia Wassef is a modern woman, who has lived in the West, grown up in Cairo among forward-thinking relatives and friends. By opening this bookstore she had dreams and aspirations for her customers, and they responded positively to her efforts. Her book is rich with references to ancient and modern writers. There is her realization that many times, in order to stay solvent and in business, a bookseller must give the public what they want, even when the bookseller has disdain for particular writers and their books. She also learns about the personal assets her employees have, and where they excel, and where they differ from others.

Opening a bookstore might be a dream, but managing it can be a nightmare. There are traditions and practices everywhere, formal and informal. Different events required her to deal with the convoluted bureaucracy of governmental agencies, which have their own customs and mores that are not always apparent. In that way, large governmental agencies are alike, everywhere in the world. She confronts censorship, sometimes about an unlikely book: an imported, modern cookbook with a suspicious title; an ancient work, One thousand and one nights, whose rocky road of historical and international censoring is neatly covered; classical Egyptian works that have had their own challenges over the centuries. There are complaints from patrons, who have esteemed positions and degrees, who often tell the staff, and Nadia in particular, that they do not know what they are doing: the books they sell; the way they are displayed; the pricing, and on and on. There are some painful, hard, cold realities that Nadia faces, working with friends she had known for years, and with whom a working relationship became impossible. There was political turmoil, unheaval, protests and changes in Egyptian leadership. Despite all of this, Diwan exists, with a marvelous website, and as Nadia Wassef says, "Diwan still stands. On March 8, 2022, the Zamalek store turns twenty."