This post is also available in: العربية

In 2014, Nadia and Hind Wassef decided to open their first bookshop, Diwan, that later became one of the most famous bookstores in the Egyptian capital Cairo. Nadia decided to immortalise her own experience in a book entitled, Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller, due for publication on October 5. The German edition was released on September 13.

The inspiration for the store emerged at a moment of frustration following the death of their father after a very long and hard illness. At a dinner with friends, Nadia was asked: “If you could do anything, what would you do?” To that, both sisters replied: They would open a bookshop. “I remember, that night we sat there dreaming about it. Hind, my sister, said it’s not going to be any kind of bookstore, every shelf has to count, every book has to make a contribution.”

As mentioned in Shelf Life, the name Diwan was suggested to the sisters by their mother Faiza, not only because it’s an anthology of Persian and Arabic poems, but for being used to connote a guesthouse and an elegant couch. Diwani was also used to describe Arabic calligraphy and is easily pronounced by English, French and Arabic speakers.

Opened in 2002, Diwan now has stores in ten locations and around 150 employees. This all despite a revolution unfolding in the country.

Diwan and an adjacent café thrive on discussions and ideas and freedoms. “The problem of human beings is that we think in dualities. We think in opposites because it’s easy. Unfortunately, easy answers are lovely, but they don’t give you very much,” she explains.

That is partly why Diwan sold not only Arabic, but also English, French and German books, signifying a dialog between cultures rather than a “clash of civilizations”.

“Bookshops are important in our lives. They anchor us, they help us travel safely, because you can come back. You go and you return. And this is one of the things that is extremely empowering.”

Nadia’s chronicle of the bookstore in Shelf Life is a testimony of the times. “In the last 10 years, we’ve seen revolutions, a financial meltdown and another revolution,” she points out, adding that she wrote the book, not only to better understand “my relationship with the city and the bookstore,” but to celebrate “a Cairo that existed 20 years ago.”

Shelf Life is therefore a “homage to books and bookstores” and Diwan is “like a sister you might not get along with anymore, but you hold on to her because you know the two of you are the only people who have the same memory.”

Sources: Adapted from Deutsche Welle