University Press Thrives On New Arabic Fiction

CAIRO—A rare example of a university press in the Middle East, the American University in Cairo Press has weathered the political and commercial turbulence of recent years by adapting and expanding.

Since its founding in 1960, AUC Press has earned a reputation as the leading publisher of Arabic literature in translation. It published English versions of books by the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz long before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988.

AUC Press is now focused on enlarging its offering of scholarly works in Middle Eastern studies, and in 2016 it set up Hoopoe, an imprint for new literary fiction.

“There is continual change and development” at AUC Press, said Neil Hewison, who recently retired as associate director for editorial programs after 31 years with the press.

Book sales were hard hit by the economic and political instability that followed the 2011 uprising against President Hosni Mubarak. As the number of tourists coming into Egypt dropped, so did sales of the coffee table books on ancient Egypt, Arab art and architecture, and photography that form a significant part of the AUC Press catalogue.

The location of its bookstore near Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the demonstrations of January 2011, forced it to close temporarily. Another bookstore that was meant to open in the nearby Egyptian Museum never did. Under President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, high inflation means buying a book is more of a luxury than ever for most Egyptians.

Today, the domestic book market may be starting to pick up again, Hewison said. In the meantime, the press has successfully shifted the larger portion of its sales to the international market.

In addition to its many Egyptology and photography books, the press’s catalogue includes scholarly works on the Middle East, such as the forthcoming The Political Economy of Reforms in Egypt by the economist Khalid Ikram. Its Arabic language learning books are among its best-selling titles, showing a sustained and increasing interest in the region and in learning Arabic. The press has also just ventured into publishing children’s books, with a series on Ancient Egypt and mummification. (The first entry is titled How I Became a Mummy.)

Hewison said he looks forward to spending more time at his home in the Fayoum lake district, about 100 kilometers south of Cairo. But he will continue to work as an editor and translator.

Hewison described the process of translation as “as engrossing as a crossword puzzle” and also as deeply creative, because it involves “internalizing a work” before one can reproduce it in another language. Hewison learned Arabic through immersion after he moved to Egypt, and has translated novels for the press, including Yusuf Idris’s novel City of Love and Ashes.

In 1996 AUC Press established the Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, an annual prize awarded for a new novel in Arabic. The winning book is translated and published by AUC Press.

For many years, AUC Press was virtually alone in its support for new Arabic literature, but this has changed in recent years. A growing interest in Arabic literature in translation has coincided with the introduction of new literary prizes sponsored by Gulf countries, such as the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (commonly referred to as “the Arabic Booker Prize”) or the Sheikh Zayed Award. More Western publishers are putting out literature in translation from the Middle East.

One of the most significant changes AUC Press has made recently is the introduction of the Hoopoe imprint, which is dedicated to Arabic literature in translation and is separate from the press’s main catalogue. The aim of Hoopoe, Hewison said, is to “take Arabic literature in translation out of the academic closet,” and to present titles simply as good books rather than as “a means to educate oneself.”

Hoopoe publishes about eight new titles a year. The idea for the separate imprint has worked successfully, said Trevor Naylor, AUC Press’s associate director for sales and marketing. “We have seen a 100-percent increase in sales, and an increase in interest from reviewers.”

Hoopoe’s two best-selling titles so far are The Televangelist, by the Egyptian TV presenter and author Ibrahim Essa—which benefited from the fact that the Arabic original was a best-seller and was turned into a TV show—and the Syrian author Khaled Khalifa’s No Knives in the Kitchens of This Country.

Hoopoe’s paperbacks have a consistent, vivid design and don’t overemphasize the fact that they are literature in translation.

“We want to sell it on this basis: Is it a good story?” said Naylor. Putting Hoopoe’s books in the general fiction category gives them “the chance to be in as many different places as possible.”

AUC Press’s other main goal is to develop its list of books on Middle Eastern studies, in areas such as history, politics and economics. This is a crowded field, with many new titles each year. The plan puts AUC Press in direct competition with hundreds of Western university presses.

The AUC Press has an advantage in being based in the Arab region, Naylor said. “This enables us to reflect the region’s outlook, and to show what the Middle East is really like,” he said.


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