REVIEW: Shelf Life by Nadia Wassef
The warm and winning story of opening a modern bookstore where there were none, Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller recounts Nadia Wassef’s troubles and triumphs as a founder and manager of Cairo-based Diwan
The streets of Cairo make strange music. The echoing calls to prayer; the raging insults hurled between drivers; the steady crescendo of horns honking; the shouts of street vendors; the television sets and radios blaring from every sidewalk. Nadia Wassef knows this song by heart.
In 2002, with her sister, Hind, and their friend, Nihal, she founded Diwan, a fiercely independent bookstore. They were three young women with no business degrees, no formal training, and nothing to lose. At the time, nothing like Diwan existed in Egypt. Culture was languishing under government mismanagement, and books were considered a luxury, not a necessity. Ten years later, Diwan had become a rousing success, with ten locations, 150 employees, and a fervent fan base.
Frank, fresh, and very funny, Nadia Wassef’s memoir tells the story of this journey. Its eclectic cast of characters features Diwan’s impassioned regulars, like the demanding Dr. Medhat; Samir, the driver with CEO aspirations; meditative and mythical Nihal; silent but deadly Hind; dictatorial and exacting Nadia, a self-proclaimed bitch to work with—and the many people, mostly men, who said Diwan would never work.
Shelf Life is a portrait of a country hurtling toward revolution, a feminist rallying cry, and an unapologetic crash course in running a business under the law of entropy. Above all, it is a celebration of the power of words to bring us home.
I read the blurb and perked up. A bookseller? Who overcame lack of a business degree but managed to triumph over all the many and varied things that ought to have shut down her dream of opening a type of store that never should have flourished yet somehow did? Yes, please I want to read this.
Nadia Wassef is honest and open about the roadblocks in the way that she and her two co-founders overcame in their quest to sell books – and not the usual type of cheaply made local books with which Egyptians had had to be content with up until then. Nadia wanted a full service modern book store/cafe that would feed the soul of a city where most people worked hard just to keep their heads above water and books were not thought essential. Not only did the three entrepreneurs have to joust against entrenched bureaucracy but also against the idea that women could possibly start and run a business.
Chapters describe various sections of the store and how the type of books shelved there related to Nadia’s life and the past and current events taking place in the country. Egypt’s past was presented in glossy books for tourists but Nadia discussed how Cairo is separated into the haves and have nots and how citizens only recently took control from colonizers of excavating and telling their own past. Nadia’s private life, pregnancy, and martial problems were discussed in the decision to stock “What to Expect” books. The cookbook section talks about the famous Egyptian cook who wrote The Essential Egyptian cookbook that generations of wives depended on as well as the Jamie Oliver book title that got the store into trouble with the censors. Whether or not the store should carry Alf Layla w Layla (“1001 Nights”) touched on the debate between those who view it as porno and those who see it as a classic.
The store’s growing pains, contractions, and then more expansions mirrored the changes in the places Egyptians do their shopping and reminded me of the death of small downtown “mom and pop” stores as malls and big box stores expanded in the U.S. Diwan also became a meeting place for friends, tutors, and women looking for a respite from the constant harassments they faced on the streets. Plus Diwan made their clean bathrooms, not always easy for women to find outside their homes, available.
Nadia is a hard driving perfectionist who freely acknowledges that she can be difficult to work with. She also freely throws around “f*cks” and owns to being a bitch. I found myself more interested in her details of running the store or Egyptian society rather than the interpersonal relations of the staff in the store. A few of the sections and discourses are a bit dry. I will own that I went into the book hoping for more fun and funny anecdotes but I ended up learning a great deal about modern Egypt and Egyptians. B-