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Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller

by Madigan Landess

“To be clear, I was a bitch to work with,” bookseller Nadia Wassef confesses in this unapologetically feminist collection of essays about co-founding and managing independent Egyptian bookstore Diwan in the years surrounding the Arab Spring. Loudmouthed with a proclivity for f-bombs, Wassef is frank about the challenges of being a woman and a boss in culturally conservative Cairo. When a would-be business partner says he “doesn’t shake hands with women,” Wassef retorts, “Hug, then?” 

These essays cleverly use Diwan’s different locales—its community-oriented café, its carefully curated “Egypt Essentials” section, its uncomfortably popular “Self-Help” collection—as springboards for commentary on bookselling, class, gender, history, parenthood, and patriarchy. Reflecting on the store’s “Business and Management” section gives Wassef an opportunity to discuss entrepreneurship and the empowerment she experiences when cursing. In a chapter on cookbooks, an order for Jamie Oliver’s The Naked Chef leads to an encounter with a state censor that must be mediated by Wassef’s lawyer. “This book is my love letter to Diwan,” she writes. Fortunately, these unconventional chronicles are much more incisive, outspoken, and candid than any valentine. –erica wetter


TOP PHOTO: Author, Nadia Wassef (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

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