In This Review

Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller
Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller
By Nadia Wassef
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021, 240 pp

Diwan Bookstore revolutionized the cultural landscape of Cairo when it opened its first outlet in 2002. Light, airy, inviting, and well stocked, the shop included a pleasant café as well as open shelves of books in Arabic, English, French, and German. There was nothing else like it in the entire city, and this memoir by one of its three founders—all women, itself an indication of the shop’s novelty and ambition—is as original and extraordinary as the store itself. Organized in chapters reflecting the store’s sections, including “Self-Help,” “The Classics,” “Business and Management,” and “Egypt Essentials,” the book weaves stories of doing business in Egypt with tales of the author’s home and family. It is a clear-eyed and often brash account of success and failure, both professional and personal. The ambiguities and contradictions of class in Egypt—who reads books, who can afford books, who steals books, and where one buys books (from the fading storefronts of central Cairo or the glittering malls in the city’s new suburbs)—are explored with frank insight and affection. The sales clerks had their pockets sewn shut to discourage petty theft, but these workers could debate the merits of the writer Naguib Mahfouz’s Nobel Prize.