You really do have to admire Nadia Wassef and her co-founders for creating the bookshops, Diwan in Egypt, when it has not been the calmest of times and where women are not expected to own a business like this one.
The memoir tells of the setting up and development of the bookshop as something different that Cairo has not really experienced before. It was created to be a welcoming place for all, especially women, and had books in several languages and toilets with toilet paper and hot water and soap, something not usually available for women when out and about.
The travails of different sections of the bookshop are discussed alongside the growth, successes and failures of opening other stores. The trio of founders learnt the hard way that you can’t sell the same things in every shop, but need to account for different communities although some things sell well where ever, one of those being self-help books.
Wassef has an academic background and that comes through in sections where she researches books, stories and languages such as Arabian Nights and how it is perceived by different religious groups. Such work just to stock a book. In fact, one of the books that provided a challenge with the censors was The Naked Chef by Jamie Oliver where they needed persuading that it was just a cook book nothing more. And this is one of the episodes where a man needed to accompany Wassef to the offices and had to do all the talking to allow the books through and to be stocked in the shops. Not the only instance of this and it adds another layer of complexity to being a bookseller.
The book is a love letter to a Cairo that is disappearing as shopping malls open up, traders disappear and poliitical changes continue to impact daily life.
One of the things that was more challenging in the book was the contrast between the more academic writing and description and the dialogue which was much more relaxed and sweary. The two felt quite separate and didn’t really gel at any point in the book. I started off wondering which was the author’s real voice but of course they both are, I’m just not sure they work together in a memoir.