Since the 19th century, the bookstore has been a central institution for Cairo’s intellectual life.
Located in Egypt’s cultural heart — an upscale, 20-minute drive from downtown — El Ghayl is a literary haven that seems untouched by the violence that has turned Cairo into one of the world’s most dangerous cities. And the ultra-modern bookshop’s cosy feel defies the contrast of the bulging, unwelcoming sidewalk outside.
The small outdoor area was once a common sight in the city and attracted both tourists and locals alike. A roomy, brick-and-marble interior serves as the bookseller’s elegant refuge. Plaques link the space to other institutions like the National Library and Museum and the American University in Cairo.
The place is filled with antiquities, as the part with the original windows can be walked through only via stone steps. It could be interpreted as an ode to the ancient, friendly streets of Cairo.
“We had to abandon the one in Hosny Square [on El Sayyid Avenue], where in 1968, people burned books,” says grocer Mohammed El Hashem as he leads the way into the building. He and his family operate the bookstore.
During happier times, the bookshop was mostly filled with scientific and theological textbooks imported from London and then shipped back to Cairo, El Hashem says.
“Now there are all kinds of [books].” He cites an “eclectic” group of imports, including several volumes on politics, business and economics and books on Arabic history.
“Customers who buy religious books come from all over,” he says. When not working, El Hashem drives a taxi.