What’s It About?
In 2002, three sisters founded Diwan, an independent and modern bookstore, in Cairo. At the time nothing like it existed in Egypt. Ten years later, Diwan had become a roaring success, with ten locations, 150 employees and a fervent fan base. In this memoir, one of the founders – Nadia Wassef – tells Diwan’s story.
I thought this book was brilliant. It tells the story of a bookstore, so of course that’s something to love about it from the start. But it does so much more than that. Each chapter delves into a section of the store – such as Classics, Self Help, Business and Management, Art and Design – and shines a light through it onto Egypt, and what it has meant to be Egyptian, in the last decades.
I loved this concept and structure for a memoir. It felt like being given a tour around the bookshop by Wassef herself, with all her dry wit and sardonic humour and intricate knowledge of the relationship between books and Egypt.
Booksellers transcend their job titles, shifting between roles to act as guardians, matchmakers, and the devisers and detectors of trends.
As a memoir it deals masterfully with both minutiae and the broad sweeping narrative of a complex country. Exchanges on the shop floor between Wassef and her colleagues and customers are often very funny, but they also speak to the bigger picture. In the chapter Egypt Essentials, Wassef comments on the enduring culture of British and French colonialism. There’s a class structure dividing those who use the Egyptian pound with no money to buy books, and those who live on foreign currency, attend foreign language educational institutions, and do have money to buy books. Diwan necessarily exists on the fault-line between these ‘two Egypts’.
The story of Diwan is an amalgamation of vignettes – funny, bitter, sweet and frustrating – that take place within its walls and in the ever changing city around it. These include the untying a shipment of The Naked Chef, held up over morality concerns, the author’s reluctant education around self-help books, the significance of Alf Layla w Layla (One Thousand and One Nights) as a classic book, struggles over misogyny and sexism, and the fight for Diwan to be seen and understood as a modern bookshop (where, no, books could not be returned once read).
I wonder if tolerance is learned, like reading…
There is also a deeply personal angle to the book. More than the story of Diwan, it is the story of ‘Mrs Diwan’ – Wassef herself, along with her family, friends and colleagues – particularly her co-owners Hind and Nihal. In this book she talks about her identity as bookshop owner and beyond: business ownership, marriage, children, the eventual decision to move away from Egypt and more. As she admits at the end, she does not own all of Diwan’s story, she only owns her own point of view.
In books, gestures, coffee cups, and tea leaves, we all search for ourselves, each other, and a means for survival.
This is such a witty and informative read about a project between friends, which became a successful business, which became a cultural institution. I highly recommend it.