Thousands find informal gigs at Cairo International Book Fair

The Cairo International Book Fair is not only an exciting event for publishers and readers, but also a bustling temporary workplace for those who labor behind the scenes, doing all the odd jobs that power the fair and earn them a tidy sum.

al-monitor Visitors to the 49th annual Cairo International Book Fair browse some of the titles on offer in this image posted to Facebook Feb. 8, 2018. Photo by Cairo Book Fair.

Mar 2, 2018

The 49th annual Cairo International Book Fair took place between Jan. 7 and Feb. 10, hosting more than 849 publishers. Haitham al-Haj Ali, chairman of the General Egyptian Book Organization, has called the fair the “largest in the world” in terms of turnout, with 3.9 million visitors.

Behind the face of the internationally renowned fair, there is an informal economy based on temporary jobs. Young men work as porters, tea makers, caterers and do odd jobs around the event, securing a nice sum at the end.

There are no official numbers for these informal positions, of course, but it's easy to calculate that it involves an enormous workforce of thousands.

Booksellers can almost never leave their booths for fear of having books stolen; their immobility gives rise to an army of unofficial workers who fetch and deliver things for them.

Possibly the largest group of these seasonal helpers are the porters: At the gates, where publishing houses leave their books and posters, porters wait in line with small trolleys. As soon as a car transporting books approaches, they offer their services at prices that range between 70 and 100 Egyptian pounds ($4-$5.70) depending on the quantity and weight of the cargo as well as the distance it must be ported.

What if the delivery is made after hours? Then Mohammed A. steps in. Mohammed is a “misahilati,” or facilitator, who can reopen the gates for late deliveries. He told Al-Monitor, “Nothing is supposed enter after 5 but the people guarding the gate are my buddies and it is not like we are smuggling drugs, so it doesn’t make any difference whether we bring in goods a few hours after the doors close.”

Mohammed declined to reveal the price of his service, saying only that both he and his friends at the door "want to make money.”

Then there is the steady stream of those who sell the fair's vendors anything they need: tea, tape and other packing materials, pens and even the occasional snack. Ali M., who sells drinks, told Al-Monitor that he carries his tray all day long and walks the fair’s corridors selling goods until they run out. “I sell tea for three pounds and coffee for five [17 and 28 cents, respectively],” he told Al-Monitor, adding that his cousin got him the plum job through his contacts at the fair.

Owner of El-Masry Publishing House Youssef Nassef told Al-Monitor that these vendors do more than sell food and drinks, occasionally lending a hand for repairs or resolving problems.

Nassef said, “One of the walls of booth was shaky and we asked those in charge to fix it, but to no avail. So I asked one of those workers, who repaired the wall in a couple of minutes. We did the same with the tent roof that was ripped.”

Am Anwar, 52, is an electrician who has been working at the fair for decades. He told Al-Monitor that the lighting at the fair is often insufficient, as the ceilings are very high and the floodlights, however big, are not enough to illuminate the enormous exhibit areas. Workers also need things like outlets to charge their phones, and this is where he steps in — for a fee.

The even supplies only a small table and two seats for each booth, and they are never sufficient. Here, too, intermediaries offer tables for rent in exchange for 100 pounds and a seat for 65 pounds for two weeks.

Then there is the job of expert table designer, who arranges books attractively and is known as “al-rasis.” One such al-rasis, Ezz. Q., said, “Some designs can take up to two or three hours of work.” He said he is happiest when he's busy with book-signing events.

“I wish the book fair lasted all year,” he added.

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