Shelf Life: The Irreverent Nadia Wassef

Shelf Life, Chron­i­cles of a Cairo Bookseller
An auto­bi­og­ra­phy by Nadia Wassef MacMillan/FSG (2021)
ISBN 9780374600181

Shelf Life - Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller coverIn a world where bricks and mor­tar book­stores are a dying breed, the sto­ry of Diwan’s twen­ty years of suc­cess in Cairo feels like that of David beat­ing Goliath. In her con­fes­sion­al mem­oir Shelf Life, Nadia Wassef chron­i­cles her jour­ney from naïve but ambi­tious young woman to own­er of Egypt’s most suc­cess­ful inde­pen­dent book­store chain. Wassef’s raw hon­esty, her can­did sense of humor and her love of books pull the read­er in, as she inter­weaves sto­ries from her per­son­al life with the sto­ry of Diwan where we find our­selves attached both to the pro­tag­o­nist and to the peo­ple who sur­round her.

The name ‘Diwan’ was coined by Wassef’s moth­er to reflect all the mean­ings of the word, “a col­lec­tion of poet­ry in Per­sian and Ara­bic, a meet­ing place, a guest­house, a sofa, and a title for high-rank­ing offi­cials.” The book­store was born on the 8th of March 2002, the brain­child of Nadia, her sis­ter Hind, and their friend Nihal. The three women com­ple­ment­ed each oth­er in their man­age­ment styles. “Hind, a woman of few words, was hard but fair. Cross­ing her was like being caught between a sword and a knife. (…) Nihal’s sub­dued pres­ence guar­an­teed she got her way, some­how ensur­ing that every­one was left sat­is­fied.” Nadia, on the oth­er hand, describes her­self as ruth­less: “If Diwan’s suc­cess had been depen­dent on my abil­i­ty to win friends and influ­ence oth­ers, we would have failed mis­er­ably. To be clear, I was a bitch to work with. I know, I know, it’s a bad word. But I reclaim it with pride. I am a dif­fi­cult per­son. (…) and it’s got­ten worse with age — an impa­tient, exact­ing, and dic­ta­to­r­i­al leader. I was tac­ti­cal, exert­ing pres­sure on those who worked with me and dri­ving them to do bet­ter. I apol­o­gized for none of it, since what­ev­er I asked of oth­ers, I demand­ed of myself first.”

For many Cairenes, Diwan soon felt like home, a sanc­tu­ary for peo­ple who still enjoyed a day with­out con­ver­sa­tion and only pages to flip for com­pa­ny. When the part­ners start­ed out, there were many naysay­ers. They insist­ed Egypt was in a state of cul­tur­al atro­phy, where book­stores could nev­er thrive. Yet Nadia’s vision for Diwan as “a book­store where peo­ple will not only spend mon­ey, but time” is the one that materialized.

Nadia’s sis­ter Hind spe­cial­ized in Ara­bic book buy­ing, because of her love of Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture, unlike Nadia whose rela­tion­ship to Ara­bic was dis­tant, “[c]omplicated and inac­ces­si­ble, clas­si­cal Ara­bic left us lin­guis­ti­cal­ly orphaned; Eng­lish adopt­ed us, and we accept­ed all too glad­ly.” Many of Diwan’s read­ers shared Nadia’s feel­ings and were “sim­i­lar­ly dis­lo­cat­ed from their roots and lost in lin­guis­tic migra­tion. We didn’t want to pun­ish them; we want­ed to invite them in.”

Diwan became a fam­i­ly affair. “Most staff mem­bers had a blood rel­a­tive some­where in the com­pa­ny. Samir, Nadia’s dri­ver for fif­teen years, his cousin worked as a secu­ri­ty guard in the Heliopo­lis branch; and Abbas, Hind’s dri­ver, had four cousins scat­tered among the two stores, the com­pa­ny office, and the warehouse.”

The class divide between the staff and the own­ers also illu­mi­nat­ed the social and eco­nom­ic dis­par­i­ty in Egypt. “We came from, and inhab­it­ed, two dif­fer­ent Egypts. They were rur­al boys who had migrat­ed to the city look­ing for work; I was a city girl, born and bred in Cairo. They were pre­dom­i­nant­ly Mus­lim; my fam­i­ly was one of mixed faiths. They grad­u­at­ed from gov­ern­ment schools; I enjoyed the ben­e­fits of a pri­vate edu­ca­tion, paid for in for­eign cur­ren­cy, and had two master’s degrees. My brazen con­fi­dence unset­tled them.” Hind how­ev­er, han­dled things dif­fer­ent­ly. “Despite her reserve, Hind’s humil­i­ty and polite­ness were endear­ing; she stood up to shake hands with cus­tomers and staff. She always intro­duced her­self as Hind, eschew­ing any title, which, in a clas­sist soci­ety, com­plete­ly defied con­ven­tion.” Nihal was more of a gen­tle moth­er fig­ure whom staff mem­bers were eager to please.

Through­out the book we learn about Wassef’s par­ents, her father who passed away but left her a lega­cy of hard work, resilience, and nego­ti­a­tion skills; her moth­er whom she con­stant­ly rebelled against but whose approval she yearned for; and her sis­ter, the busi­ness part­ner and com­pan­ion who was always by her side.

Labels were one of Nadia’s biggest strug­gles, for she nev­er saw her­self reflect­ed in the words entre­pre­neur, moth­er, divor­cée, pio­neer, daugh­ter. The self-help books that Diwan car­ried only increased her tur­moil. Self-help “felt like a cap­i­tal­ist per­ver­sion of the basic expe­ri­ence of human life. I watched as the banal­i­ty of par­ent­hood trans­formed into a spec­ta­cle that jus­ti­fied the pur­chase of spe­cif­ic clothes, gad­gets, and now, books.”

Her expe­ri­ence of mar­riage, preg­nan­cy and moth­er­hood only exac­er­bat­ed her aver­sion to the genre: “Times like these made me resent the images of mater­nal bliss I saw on the cov­ers of preg­nan­cy books. Where were the faces rid­den with malaise and alien­ation? Where was the dis­com­fort and dis­sat­is­fac­tion of breast­feed­ing? Why did nobody warn me about the addi­tion­al guilt of har­bor­ing these feel­ings at all? (…) Par­ent­ing con­tin­u­al­ly brought my weak­ness­es and lim­i­ta­tions into stark relief. Part of my dis­taste was due to the expec­ta­tion that child­bear­ing would be the ulti­mate ful­fill­ment of my wom­an­hood, my crown­ing achieve­ment. (…) Bear­ing chil­dren sig­ni­fied suc­cess— nev­er mind how they turned out.”

She con­tin­ued to resent “the self-help genre that was cre­at­ed to assuage, and con­ceal, the deep-seat­ed alien­ation of being alive under cap­i­tal­ism, under patri­archy, under all oth­er bro­ken sys­tems. That indi­vid­ual self-improve­ment is a mis­guid­ed anti­dote to our increas­ing iso­la­tion from nature, fam­i­ly, and com­mu­ni­ty.” Yet by the end of the book Nadia admits that “the writ­ing of this book has been an exor­cism of sorts.”

The father of her daugh­ters agreed. “[A]fter read­ing this mem­oir, he told me that I’d writ­ten my very own self-help book.”

When Diwan was six years old, Nadia’s daugh­ters were four and six, and she describes how she bat­tled as a sin­gle work­ing moth­er, “As a woman, how do you rec­on­cile the demands of home and work? (…) I nev­er will. I wouldn’t trust any­one who claims to have done so. (…) But I made my choic­es. I want my girls to grow up in a home where their moth­er works. I am a sin­gle par­ent, and I am proud and grate­ful.” Her no-frills par­ent­hood and straight­for­ward atti­tude still make her unsure of her­self as a role mod­el for her daugh­ters, espe­cial­ly after her sec­ond divorce. “After two preg­nan­cies, I got my tubes tied. After two divorces, I made the vow: nev­er again.”

Mubarak ran our lives, and our homeland, under the guidance of a tried and tested Egyptian proverb: strike at the shackled and the free shall be deterred.

The funny intriguing anecdotes of Nadia’s favorite books were like going through everything we’ve read in the past twenty years. Her preferred choices many times were in line with my own, like Waguih Ghazi’s Beer in the Snooker Club on how he blurred borders, followed his “desire to belong and a fear of leaving oneself behind,” and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on “the danger of a single story.” She expressed frustration with what was globally popular — books by Paulo Coelho, titles such as Eat Pray Love and Chicken Soup for the Soul. However, she was appreciative of the importance of variety: “We were cubists, offering varied perspectives and angles from which to view the same subject. (….) No two readers will ever read the same book in the same way.”

Diwan was where Nadia found relief and escapism. She writes: “The only thing that made me feel like myself during those years was stacking books, arranging them on our shelves with care. I would forget my children, my failing marriage, the leak in the bathroom ceiling, the ironing I had to send to Akram. I would surrender to a kind of transcendence that felt like drifting, surrounded by the abundant shelves, the ample conversation, the snippets of laughter. I belonged in Diwan, in a way that I didn’t in my own home with my daughters.”

Egypt Essentials

Diwan’s story is also a story of the history of publishing and bookstores in Egypt. Nadia’s book choices forced her to confront the realities of Egypt’s colonialism, neo-colonialism, politics, and socio-economic life. The “Egypt Essentials” section of the bookstore enabled readers to get “a glimpse of Egypt’s soul — a promise of reclamation and redemption — may be accessible only through someone else’s words. Egypt Essentials was a small section that posed a series of questions without claiming to answer them … Our eclectic collection introduced the colonizer to the colonized, the historians to the novelists, the locals to the outsiders.”

Shelf Life expands on the power of the shelf and how it can contribute to cultural awareness. The Mubarak regime’s philosophy ran counter to this belief, seeking to propagate only what it sanctioned through its heavy-handed censorship bureau. “As law-abiding citizens, we knew that it was illegal to say, write, or print anything that offended public morals, threatened national unity or the social order, or tarnished Egypt’s reputation in the foreign press,” Wassef writes. “Violating these rules could result in imprisonment, payment of fines, or the suspension of licenses. Mubarak ran our lives, and our homeland, under the guidance of a tried and tested Egyptian proverb: strike at the shackled and the free shall be deterred.”

The Arabian Nights, a regular on Diwan’s classics shelf, was Nadia’s favorite book of Arabic literature, and she searched for the original uncensored 1001 Nights at the used book market in El-Ezbekiya. Her own brush with the censorship bureau was for The Naked Chef, which the bureau thought a breach of public morals because of the title. With time, Nadia became seasoned and knew how bringing the censorship employees sweets during festivals could ease the process. Yet, “the pervasive uncertainty and endless delays are tools for control. You watch from a distance, knowing that one day, your turn will come. Until then, you surrender to panoptic self-censorship, measuring your words.”

Nadia Wassef is one of the owners of Diwan, Egypt’s first modern bookstore, which she cofounded in 2002. She holds three master’s degrees: an MA in creative writing from Birkbeck, University of London, an MA in social anthropology from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and an MA in English and comparative literature from the American University in Cairo. Before cofounding Diwan, she worked in research and advocacy for the Female Genital Mutilation Task Force and the Women and Memory Forum. She was featured on the Forbes Middle East list of the two hundred most powerful Arab women in the Middle East in 2014, 2015, and 2016, and her work has been covered in Time, Monocle, and Business Monthly, among other publications. She lives in London with her two daughters.

Her attitude towards religion was equally progressive. She refused to carry books by Islamic polemics that all other stores carried. Instead, she chose to highlight Coptic history and culture, and celebrated with Islamic cultural books. “When we did Islam, we did it Diwan-style. We did not stock texts about hadith, sayings of the Prophet, or the different schools of Islamic jurisprudence that besieged existing bookstores. Instead, we sold books about mulids, festivals celebrating the births of saints, Sufism, poetry, calligraphy, architecture, and the artistry of woodwork, carpets, and pottery. We challenged ourselves and others to read history as a changing entity, rather than a lifeless, linear record. We presented and lobbied for a study in fragments of a history in fragments.”

As time went by, Nadia’s upbringing and parents made her feel like Cairo was excluding her. “But in recent decades, acceptance of otherness and tolerance of religious difference seem to have faded.” Her children lived a life far more removed from Cairo’s different social classes than Nadia and Hind had. “I thought about the relationship the youngest generation, growing up in gated communities and compounds, would have to their surroundings. I can’t imagine cultivating a sense of civic duty and belonging from behind such high walls.”

Nadia’s daily challenges with society and Diwan grew. She had to deal with cases of theft and sexual harassment in the store. Then the 2008 recession hit hard and just as Diwan started recuperating its losses, the Egyptian thawra happened in January 2011. Nadia writes:

“Frustration at every unfulfilled promise made over the previous five decades was palpable. During the early days, before we could call it a revolution, there was a series of escalating protests that police responded to with rubber bullets and tear gas. (…) We tried to keep staff morale and physical stores intact. For our remaining seven stores and 108 staff members, the protests, curfews, and blocked roads added to the uncertainty. Every day, we lost revenue. Stores couldn’t open. People were buying food, not books. Aware of our social responsibilities, and regardless of cash flow and battered balance sheets, we continued to pay full salaries while many other businesses deferred or withheld payment.” Then, for a brief period of exhilaration “our customers were reading more than ever. While sales of my English books fell—buying them seemed almost unpatriotic—Hind’s Arabic sales mushroomed.”

The turnaround was short lived. “Around 2014, buying patterns shifted as collective fatigue set in, eventually giving way to disillusionment. There was a notable increase in demand for spiritual titles. I felt the pain of our disappointment. Books, especially books about transcendence, were antidotes to burnout. We’d been watching the news too much in the fevered years following the revolution. There was a sense of impending failure. The Arab Spring had unspooled into the endless winter of our discontent.”

Diwan became a household name thanks to Nadia’s sheer force, stamina, and her relentless drive. Her identity was intertwined with that of the store, she was known as Mrs. Diwan during those fifteen years. “Diwan was my love letter to Egypt. It was part of, and fueled, my search for myself, my Cairo, my country. And this book is my love letter to Diwan.”

That’s why when Nadia “left Cairo, feeling broken and beaten, I kept returning to the days when Diwan was simpler. When Hind, Nihal, and I were all positive forces in each other’s lives, when I wasn’t crippled by guilt for abandoning everyone and everything I held dear. I felt like a fraud whenever anyone congratulated me on what we’d built. (…) I had to choose between Diwan’s future and my children’s, and I chose the latter. (…) When I left Egypt, Egypt also left me. In London, I tried to find a job in bookselling, only to discover that a Cairo bookseller was an exotic proposition as long as she stayed in Cairo and ordered English books for the natives to read. Her experience didn’t translate. The English market was apparently much more sophisticated. I thought readers were readers everywhere. I was gutted, and I was furious.”

Nadia is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with, whether negotiating with suppliers, facing the censorship bureau, or stacking the shelves at Diwan, but she recognizes that it is not only her tireless efforts that have shaped her, it is also her privilege. “I am no trailblazing heroine, and I’m no better than the millions of women who stayed in shit marriages. I could afford to divorce. It was that simple. I had a roof over my head, and I was financially independent.” In consequence she’s hard on herself, self-deprecating, never letting herself off the hook and admitting willingly to her faults.

Zamalek where Nadia grew up and where the Diwan flagship store was born, “is on an island in the middle of a river surrounded by a desert; England is also on an island, one with shit weather. On this island, I feel like neither an immigrant nor part of a diaspora. When I was sixteen, I read Camus’s The Outsider. I saw myself in the title. Today, the knowledge that I don’t belong anywhere liberates me. The books on Diwan’s shelves stayed in place and moved, were bought and left behind. I see myself in them.”

Post was originally published in The Markaz Review

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