June 1, 2015
Cairo’s safe haven for books
by Nick Davies
Egypt has a less than stellar reputation when it comes to freedom of speech and press; the independent watchdog organization Freedom House has classified the country as “not free” when it comes to political rights and civil liberties, and this past fall, a Cairo student was arrested, in part, due to having a copy of 1984 in his possession.
Last week, though, Marcia Lynx Qualey reported for Your Middle East about one Cairo resident who’s made it her mission to provide a haven for books in the city. Karam Youssef studied mass media at Cairo University before moving on to cushy jobs at AT&T and Hewlett Packard, but in 2006 she gave up that stability to open a bookstore, which would eventually become a publishing house as well.
Youssef decided to call her store Kotob Khan, using the Arabic word “khan” for inn or motel, emphasizing that she doesn’t just want to sell books, but to create a safe space and build a community. “It was my wish,” she says, “that there would be a place to take care of books, where a book—that sentient being—can feel safe. A khan for books, or a motel for books, where books can rest during their long journey and start again on their eternal travels.”
Kotob Khan’s goal is more than selling books, Youssef says; it’s also “caring for the book, the reader, and the writer.” Since opening its doors in 2006, the store has established itself as a center of activity for reading, writing, and research, and a social and cultural hub. Kotob Khan hosts a wide range of events, including an annual creative writing workshop. This year, Lebanese author Lana Abdel Rahman is lending her expertise to work with twelve young writers and guide them through the process of writing a novel.
Beyond the world of book, Kotob Khan has embraced political discourse, hosting a series of lectures by “social critics, lawyers, journalists, MPs, and candidates for parliament” in the wake of the turmoil of 2011. They also host musical events, children’s readings, fine arts workshops, and more—all with the aim of establishing a literary community and sustaining a vibrant bookstore through good times and bad.
Nick Davies was a publicist at Melville House.