Goodbye Madbouli

Hagg Madbouli, the owner of one of Cairo's iconic bookstores, passed away on December 5th. Any one who has spent some time in Cairo has also spent some time, at some point, at Madbouli's, a small packed bookstore on Midan Talat Harb (so small and packed, in fact, that it was impossible to browse--you had to ask one of the men who worked there to find you the book you wanted.) 
Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madboulli Cairo cover issue 25 - Hagg Madbouli

But Madbouli's always had a wide selection of books, and always promised to get you the one you wanted if it wasn't available at the moment. (I recently asked an Egyptian friend to look for some books in Beirut for me and she came back laughing, saying the Lebanese clerks had told her "You have to look for this at Madbouli's, in Cairo, in Midan Opera"--wrong address, but close.) 

Hagg Madbouli has a quite striking story of personal success: he started out as a child selling newspapers on the street, and ended up running one of Cairo's main book stores, and eventually, publishing houses. We did a profile of  him [PDF 6.8MB] years ago at the now-defunct Cairo magazine, and there have been articles the Hebdo and the Daily News recently. Despite the anecdotes about him providing intellectuals with censured or hard-to-find books under Nasser and Sadat, I have to say that I have a less idealistic view of the Hagg than most of this eulogizers--he usually struck me as a grouch and, as far as literature was concerned, a philistine. I suspect he saw book-selling merely as a profession and that his choice of books to sell and publish were dictated by a cunning reading of the market more than by any literary principles of his own. And the outpour of articles about him just goes to show, in a way, how small the cultural and publishing scene in Cairo remains.

Still, we need successful and entrepreneurial publishers, and the Hagg will be fondly remembered as a Cairo institution.
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Ursula Lindsey

Ursula Lindsey is the managing editor of the Arabist blog. She writes about culture, education and politics in the Arab world. She lived in Cairo from 2002 to 2013 and got her start at the ground-breaking independent magazine Cairo Times. She was the culture editor of Cairo magazine in 2005-2006 and served as special projects editor at the independent news site Mada Masr in 2013-2014. She is the Chronicle of Higher Education's Middle East correspondent. She contributes to the BBC-PRI radio program The World, and has written for Newsweek, The New York Times, The New Yorker online, Bookforum and the blog of the London Review of Books.