Bread and Roses: Publishing for the People in 1950s Egypt

collection 1 Stitch

This blog is about the first collection of books I entered for the Edinburgh University student book collecting prize. It was the first thing that ever made me think that I might be a “book collector” (which I suppose I am now) so I owe it a lot, though it has been the cause of me spending lots of money.

What I entered was the result of a totally unscientific collecting habit in Ezbekiyya market. I had always liked the look of the “Hilal Book” series and every time I saw a nice cover I would pick it up. They are abundant and cheap in the second hand book stalls so I managed to get quite a big collection (although I didn’t win).

It is not surprising that they are all over Ezbekiyya because they were designed to be cheap and abundant. The series started in June 1951 and it was supposed to be a way to offer culture to the masses at an affordable price. Its parent magazine, al-Hilal, described it thus: “On the fifth of every month we will present an invaluable book from the best and most refined works, characterised by the charm of its subject, the elegance of its style, the beauty of its appearance, and the cheapness of the price.”

At the time there were “three sisters” in the al-Hilal family. The first was the magazine (published the first of every month), the second was “The Hilal Novel” (a novel, usually in translation, published every on the 15th month), and this, “The Hilal Book” (published the 5th of every month).

The first book to be published in a “Hilal Book” edition was al-Aqqad’s “Genius of Mohammed”. It was the perfect thing to start the series with because, they said “Mohammed is a great Arabic character, whose teachings millions around the world follow. He is great in all fields, in the field of religion, in the field of knowledge, and in the field of morals.” This was a guiding force for the series. The second book was on Magellan and the third on Harun al-Rashid, the Caliph. I managed for find a copy of this first book on Mohammed in Iyad’s bookshop in Beirut:

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It is apt that this copy appeared in Beirut because the enterprise was not just an Egyptian but a global one. They accepted subscriptions from all over the world. For Egypt and Sudan the cost of a year’s subscription was 85 piasters (a figure that I found referred to as roughly “7 days work for a farm labourer” if that makes it any clearer). For a year for someone in Syria or Lebanon  it was 11 Syrian Pounds,  110 Piasters for someone in the Hijaz, Iraq or Jordan, 6 Dollars for someone in the Americas, and 150 Piastres for someone elsewhere in the world. They also had offices on fourseparate continents (Asia, Europe, Africa and South America) as they make clear at the back of the books.

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The topics that they choose make for an interesting list of what the publishers at Hilal thought would be good for the people to read. There are books about great Arabic historical figures such as Qaraqosh, Mustafa Kamil, Hoda Shaarawi and Harun al-Rashid. There are general books on Islam and Arabic history. There are also works of modern literature and scholarship by Mahmoud Darwish, Mahmoud Taymour, and Louis Awad. Likewise, there are more “Western” books on things like George Bernard Shaw, Europe in 1969, Soviet literature and a book on psychiatry by Dr Edward Spencer Cowles.

However, the reason that I really started picking them up is less literary and more aesthetic. I liked the covers. I particularly liked the covers done in the 1980s by an artist called Samiha Hassanein. I know very little about her except that she is an Egyptian artist who was once called “The pioneer of cover design”. Because the al-Hilal books, unlike many others, tell you who did the covers I soon got to know her name. Her work is also extremely obvious to pick out. Once you know her simple and elegant cubist, collage like designs you can pick them out very easily in a crowded book stall. I will end the post by giving a few examples of her great work.

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Good, no?

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