Books from Islamic publishing houses sell well in Egyptian markets

BY Western standards, the Al Zahraa publishing house looks unusual. The chief editor covers her hair with a higab, an Islamic head covering that flows around the chest and back. The d'ecor is not the usual spare Bauhaus found at New York publishers, but arabesque style. The wooden chairs have mother-of-pearl inlaid in intricate designs. The house is named for the Prophet Muhammad's favorite daughter.

But Al Zahraa is not unusual in Egypt. It is one of a slew of so-called Islamic publishing houses that have become the trend in book publishing here.

Zahraa and another hundred or so Islamic houses are publishing all kinds of books on themes linked to the Islamic revival.

By far the most active and energetic publishing houses in Egypt, Islamic firms have come to dominate the book market here. They are an important element in the developing interest in Islam and the growing desire of many Egyptians for an Islamic state under Islamic law.

``We believe that Islam will be a new force on the international scene and that the map of the world will change,'' said Ahmad Raef, the president of Al Zahraa. ``Islam will have a new position in the near future, and we are participating in a small way to achieve that goal.''

In the last few years, Egyptians in large numbers have turned toward religion, becoming observant and adopting the outer appearance of religiosity, the higab for women and the long robe for men. Sociologists have sought to explain the trend, with some citing dire economic circumstances and others concluding that Islam is for many a rebellion against the government and the seemingly pervasive Western influence. Some Islamicists acknowledge that it has been a means for Egyptians to discover their roots and take pride in their origins.

Whatever the reason, the growth of religious observance has strengthened those who want to bring about an Islamic state. Zahraa and other Islamic publishing houses are flourishing and are tackling ambitious projects that other houses cannot afford.

At the recent Cairo book fair - the Middle East's largest - Islamic publishers were a majority of the houses participating.

Zahraa sold thousands of copies of a new atlas of Islamic history that was selling for $70 a copy, an exorbitant price by Egyptian standards.

Even secular editors thought it profitable to display religious books as a way to attract the public. Men in long white robes and knitted white caps stood alongside secularly dressed men and women in the crowded stalls of the publishers selling religious books.

The traditional left-wing publishers who thrived during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser attracted only a trickle.

``We are the cause of a lot of anxiety at the secular houses,'' Mr. Raef said. ``We compete with them on political books and we do better.''

Since its formation in 1984, Zahraa has published 60 titles. Its first book was on Islam in Yemen, its second on the socialist regime of Nasser, under which many Muslim fundamentalists went to jail and were allegedly tortured. The book showed, said Safinez Kassem, the chief editor, ``how completely corrupt Nasser was.''

A third book, which compiled personal accounts of torture, has become a best seller. In all, the house has sold 700,000 copies of its books, an impressive number in Egypt, where only 30 percent of the population is literate.

With the ``street,'' as Raef calls it, largely Islamic, even hard-and-fast Marxist publishers are publishing books about Islam. But their books are critical of the politicization of Islam.

``There is a deluge of religious books,'' said Mahmoud Amin El Alam, an executive at the New Culture Library, a Marxist publishing house.

``We're not writing against Islam,'' he said. ``We're against an Islamic government. If the Prophet Muhammad were here today, he'd be a socialist or communist. This is the essence of Islam.''

The hundreds of books on Islam, both pro and con, have revolutionized the world of ideas and helped to define issues, particularly since Hosni Mubarak became President.

Before, during the time of Nasser, the government exercised strict control over book publishing, and most militant Islamicists were in jail anyway. President Sadat released the jailed Muslim Brothers and, says Raef, who did time under Nasser, allowed private companies to publish. But he says Sadat confiscated the books he didn't like.

President Mubarak, with his commitment to free speech and a free press, has stopped even that interference, in effect helping the Islamic publishers and their ideas to thrive.

Al Zahraa, like many of the other Islamic houses, got its start in the early 1980s as Mr. Mubarak was bringing about his liberalization.

``We were not seeking profit,'' said Mrs. Kassem. ``We wanted to help the contemporary Muslim to see the dimension of his religion,'' to have pride in it and to adopt it as a total creed.

Currently Zahraa publishes 30 titles a year and is starting up its own printing press. The house tackles most disciplines - religion, history, philosophy; ``anything,'' says Raef, that ``feeds the Islamic dream to have an Islamic state and culture.''

The biggest project so far was the publication last December of the atlas, intended to make Muslims aware of the origins and expansion of Islam from the time of Muhammad in the 7th century. In three months, 30,000 volumes have been sold.

Raef and his colleagues expect that someday soon Egypt will become an Islamic state. The question is what kind. They want the Egyptian people to understand the strengths, depth, and variety of Islam, including Shia Islam as practiced in Iran. But they want Egypt to reject intolerance and fanaticism.

``We are working,'' says Raef, ``to form the contemporary Muslim mind.''

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