At the Serpentine
On the second Friday of the Egyptian revolution (4 February) I noticed a change in the dusty, makeshift bookstalls on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. The usual array of cheaply printed, sun-faded, sometimes used books – Programming for Dummies, C++, The Prophet’s Hadith, The Little Prince, Advanced Mathematics – were joined by An Alternative President, Red Card for the President, Revolution 2025 and a selection of pirated publications with covers bearing the silhouette of Che Guevara or social networking logos. ‘It was a revolution for our business,’ one of the booksellers told me recently. ‘There were no longer police on the streets – there was no one to arrest us or take away our goods. Censorship ceased to exist.’
Since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, dozens of new books about all things ‘revolution’ have appeared. One week alone saw the release of, among others, Tahrir Diaries, From the Brotherhood to Tahrir Square, The Eyes that Saw the Revolution, Revolution without a Leader, The Days of Freedom in Tahrir Square, Tahrir Square 25, The Revolution of Vinegar and Onions, The Night of the President’s Departure, The Last Hours in the Rule of Mubarak, The Fall of the Successor and his Mafia. Many of them were published, and all stocked, by Al-Shorouk, a publishing and bookselling group founded by Ibrahim El Moallem (I spotted him out protesting on day four of the revolution).
Most of these books are currently on display in London, as part of the itinerant Bidoun Library, which collects books, periodicals and printed ephemera related to the Middle East, and has previously found shelter at an art fair in Dubai, a gallery in Cairo and the New Museum in New York. Until 17 September it’s in the Sackler Centre of Arts Education, a small room at the back of the Serpentine Gallery, where the Egyptian revolution books are stacked and piled and plastered alongside thousands of others from the library’s 29 categories (they include ‘The Veil’, ‘Iranian Revolution’, ‘Oil’, ‘State Printed’, ‘Conspiracy’, and ‘The Arabs’, which consists of every book the library could find entitled The Arabs). The collection has been prudently curated with an eye for the general, the rare and the outrageously clichéd: one book is called Muhammad’s Monsters: A Comprehensive Guide to Radical Islam, another From Veil to Thong.
How often do people walk off the street – in Cairo, London or New York – into a public library to browse the ‘Middle East’ section? How many public libraries even have a ‘Middle East’ section? Yet the Bidoun Library is always packed. In New York last September, among the groups of schoolchildren and other museumgoers, I spoke to an Arabic café owner from Brooklyn, tourists from Chicago, art students from uptown, a graduate student from Bahrain. Everyone was putting on the white gloves that were on offer to leaf through Aramco World or back issues of Tricontinental from 1970, or take a book from a shelf, go to a bench, and sit down and read.