Over a period of 12 years, 650,000 copies of Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz’s books have been sold — a figure that has spurred a heated debate over
whether this signifies a commercial success or a miserable failure to promote the country’s Nobel Prize in Literature laureate, particularly among Egypt’s youth.
According to Dar El Shorouk the publishing house that owns the exclusive publishing rights to Mahfouz’s works in Arabic, the number of books sold is a success. The publisher said in a statement in March that the works of Mahfouz have been published “in unprecedented numbers” and “in several editions for each book.” It continued, “Some books had more than 16 editions, and we published around 650,000 copies in 12 years. We hope we will reach 1 million [sold copies] of Mahfouz’s books in the coming months due to the interest of our readers. This is a unique achievement for Arabic-language literature.”
Egyptian novelist Hassan Abdel Mawgoud believes just the opposite. “The number of books sold is unsatisfactory and does not match Mahfouz’s status as one of Egypt’s best-known authors. Mahfouz’s 54 novels and short story collections were printed in 54,000 copies per year, which means 1,000 copies for each book, in a country with a population of more than 100 million people, 74 million of whom can read. These low rates are not due to Mahfouz’s books or classics in general,” he told Al-Monitor.
For Abdel-Mawgoud, the “crisis of reading classics” is simply caused by the policies of the publishing houses that have obtained the sole publishing rights of Egypt’s classics writers such as Yusuf Sibai, Yusuf Ihsan Abdel Quddus, Yusuf Idris, and Tawfiq al Hakim. He attributed the decline to the publishers’ failure to develop policies that would enable the work of such writers to reach a larger audience, either through making more copies available or lowering prices. Indeed, rather than working towards making the work of these celebrated writers more available to the public, publishing houses frequently stopped printing copies of a book altogether if they believed the profit margins would be low.
Abdel-Mawgoud’s opinion triggered a lively debate when he posted some of his views on the monopoly of publishing houses on his Facebook page in March, when he accusing Dar El-Shorouk of maintaining a monopoly over the books of Naguib Mafouz.
The post, which many novelists and authors supported said: “We, the Egyptian intellectuals, call on the Ministry of Culture to take action against Dar El-Shorouk publishing house by taking away their rights to publish Mahfouz’s books … given their international importance, Egyptians have the right to strip the company of this monopoly.” In essence, he voiced the opinions of many from all walks of life who believe the work of the Egyptian Nobel laureate belong to the Egyptian people not a single Cairo publishing house.
Novelist Ashraf El Sabbagh agreed with Abdel-Mawgoud that there is a real problem of distribution and availability of classics in Egypt. He said he had spoken to many literature students, who head to the branches of the Dar El-Shorouk publishing house hoping to buy classics but returning empty-handed because the books were simply not available.
Mohammad al-Chahat, a professor of literary criticism at the University of Cairo, told Al-Monitor, “Although many people can read and write, the market of modern and classic novels has witnessed a decline,” putting this down to the increased time young people spend in front of a screen. “After the January 25 Revolution, the attention of the youth shifted back to the importance of reading and its value in spreading awareness and social and political culture. Perhaps the distribution of printed classics dropped because they were available online.”
For Mohammad Khedr, the director of distribution at Dar El-Shorouk, cinema and TV may serve to rekindle interest in the classics. He told Al-Monitor that the distribution of Mahfouz’s novel Afrah al Qobba (Wedding Song) soared after a TV series based on the book was produced and broadcast in 2016. Khedr noted that those accusing Dar El-Shorouk of slackening in promoting Mahfouz’s work and that of other classics novelists overlook the fact that the publishing house contributed to producing several successful TV series based on novels, mainly Afrah al-Qobba.
Amira Abu al-Majd, director of publications at Dar El-Shorouk noted:”Currently the publishing houses are benefitting from young people’s interest in reading, and the proof is that the people working in cinema and TV production are realising the value of classics. Some productions such as Afrah al-Qobba were created by young drama producers.”