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Egyptian fiction growing, challenging conservative norms

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(Read caption) Readers browse at the 42nd Cairo International Book Fair.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

The age-old Middle Eastern adage that books are written in Cairo, published in Beirut, and read in Baghdad is getting a run for its money. Today, a new wave of Egyptian fiction has increased readership both inside and outside the country.

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Many trace the new style of literature to a 2002 novel, “The Yacoubian Building” by Alaa Al Aswany, that moved themes of social stigma and societal pressure to the forefront of Egyptian literature. Since its publication, “The Yacoubian Building” has sold more than a million copies worldwide in 40 countries and has been translated into 30 languages.

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Other authors have pushed the new genre further, increasingly incorporating Internet terminology and peppering their texts with references to pop culture.

The changing times have also increased the public presence of female authors. Books such as “I Want to Get Married!” by Ghada Abdel Aal, which originated as a blog, are challenging conventions and chronicling the experience of women in a conservative society.

The launch of prestigious Arab literary prizes in the past few years, such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award and International Prize for Arabic Fiction (known as the “Arab Booker”) have also increased readership and demand both at home and abroad.

The proliferation of bookstores with coffee shops, where customers can sit and peruse books, have also had an impact on readership. Coffee shops make bookstores more user-friendly – and they bring “people into bookstores who might not normally go,” says Mark Linz, director of the American University in Cairo Press, a publishing house in Cairo.