Ownership dispute casts doubt on future of Cairo bookstore

Egypt's Culture Ministry steps in to protect the valuable books and manuscripts at the Orientalist, a bookstore in Cairo, after its owner dies.

al-monitor A view of the Orientalist bookstore in Cairo, uploaded May 3, 2018.  Photo by Facebook/NAGWAPOUKA.

Jan 23, 2019

CAIRO — The Egyptian actor and tenor Hassan Kami, who died Dec. 14, has left behind a legal muddle involving the Orientalist, one of Cairo’s best-known bookstores. Among the 40,000 items in the store are a number of rare first editions and valuable manuscripts that Kami never offered for sale but now stand at the crux of a legal dispute over rightful owners and Egypt's cultural heritage.

Kami’s lawyer, Amr Ramadan, claims that the actor had sold him the bookstore and its contents a few years before his death, but Kami's family is contesting the validity of such a transaction. In addition, given the value and nature of some of the rarities in the shop, the Egyptian Ministry of Culture and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), the country's largest library, have stepped into the fray to protect what they see as Egypt's literary heritage.

Ramadan staked his claim to ownership three days after Kami's death. The lawyer re-opened the bookstore's doors on Dec. 17 and, according to local media reports, sold some of the most valuable books and manuscripts. That same day, the Kami family took legal action against Ramadan, accusing him of having taken advantage of Kami's advanced age to sign a sales contract for the actor's villa as well as the Orientalist. The family claims that the sale is therefore invalid.

Meanwhile, writers, intellectuals and politicians have been expressing their concern that Kami's heirs will sell off rare books, documents and manuscripts, resulting in some of them leaving the country. Several people, including the writer Yusuf al-Qaid, have argued that under Egypt’s Law on the Protection of Manuscripts, the rare books and manuscripts in the collection cannot simply be sold off, as they are part of the country's cultural heritage. Members of the parliament’s Cultural Committee called on the Ministry of Culture to protect the bookstore's contents before items disappear.

Culture Minister Inas Abdel al-Dayem sent a request to the public prosecutor on Dec. 18, asking the judiciary to “protect the heritage of Kami” and prevent the heirs from disposing or selling anything from the store until a committee from the Egyptian General Organization of Books and National Documents, affiliated with the Culture Ministry, can evaluate the collection to determine whether any of its holdings fall under the Egyptian law on protecting manuscripts and books.

On the day of Dayem's request, the prosecutor general ordered the immediate closure of the bookstore and a halt to all sales until the legal dispute between Ramadan, Kami’s family and the state is resolved. The Egyptian General Organization of Books and National Documents announced on Jan. 7 that it would assess the value of the Orientalist inventory throughout the month.

The Alexandria-based BA announced that it would like to house the valuables in the collection to ensure that they remain in Egypt and are accessible to the public. Mustafa al-Feki, the library's director, has said publicly that the BA has entered into a “promise of sale” agreement with Kami heirs, in which they have authorized the BA to assess the value of the Orientalist's contents, including paintings and photos as well as documents, books and manuscripts. Once the inventory is completed, the heirs will decide whether to donate or sell parts or all of the collection to the BA. The agreement gives priority to the BA over any other entity or any other person seeking the items.

The Orientalist was founded at the end of the 19th century by a Swiss Jew with the last name Feldman who had moved to Egypt. He left the country in 1956, handing the bookstore's management to his assistant, Charles Bahari, until Kami bought it in the 1980s. The collection's thousands of books included an early edition of Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days” and one of the first editions of “Description de l'Egypte," the great catalogue of Egypt ordered by Napoleon Bonaparte in the late 18th century.

From Qaid's perspective, the best solution would be for the state to buy the inventory of the Orientalist, calling its contents a “cultural legacy that belongs to all Egyptians, not to the Kami family or his lawyer alone.”

“The recent dispute between the family and the lawyer has proved that [the contents] will not be available to all Egyptians unless placed under the supervision of the state,” Qaid told Al-Monitor. “If the contents remain in the hands of the lawyer, they may end up being sold. Also, Kami’s family may decide to close the bookstore, either because they have bigger fish to fry or because of the legal conflict with the lawyer. Either way, Egyptians would not be able to benefit from this cultural heritage.”

Speaking to Al-Monitor, Osama Haykal, head of the parliament's Media, Culture and Antiquities Committee, pointed out that the state has no legal right to the collection.

“The Orientalist’s collection belongs either to Kami’s family or to his lawyer,” Haykal said. “Whoever turns out to be the legal owner would be entitled to donate the contents to the state, or sell them, but it is their own decision.” He emphasized that nothing obliges the bookshop's rightful owner to waive ownership to the state in exchange for compensation let alone donate its contents. He also noted that the Ministry of Culture and the BA must wait until the legal dispute between Kami’s family and his lawyer is settled.

The question of ownership is now in the hands of the Qasr el-Nile prosecutor, who opened the case on Dec. 29.

Mahmoud al-Omrani, a lawyer who specializes in inheritance issues, concurred with Haykal. He told Al-Monitor that the two likely scenarios are that the court will determine that Kami had indeed sold the bookstore to Ramadan — thus giving him alone the right to keep, sell or donate its contents in part or in full — or the court will deem Ramadan’s sales contract invalid, giving the family the shop and allowing them to decide whether to sell or donate parts of the collection to the BA according to the pre-sale agreement or to someone else. “The BA’s pre-sale agreement with the heirs is not binding on Ramadan,” Omrani noted.

A well-informed source at the General Organization of Books and National Documents told Al-Monitor that it would be difficult for the state to protect the Orientalist's collection if it is not bought by or donated to the BA, because no other Egyptian public institution has the financial means to acquire them. The source estimated the items to be worth millions of Egyptian pounds.

Omrani suggested that the best cultural heritage approach would be for the Ministry of Culture to create digital copies and an index of the holdings and then return the originals to the owners, who could sell them under the supervision and knowledge of the General Organization of Books and National Documents. Under the Law on the Protection of Manuscripts, however, the valuable manuscripts should not leave Egyptian soil. “This would allow the owners to benefit from the manuscripts, but this heritage should not be lost,” Omrani said.

Mamdouh Mahmoud, the husband of Kami's sister, one of the heirs, told Al-Monitor, “The heirs are not against the application of the Law on the Protection of Manuscripts, and neither are they against the donation of the Orientalist’s contents to the state. However, they are against any side unrightfully declaring that they are the bookstore owners. We have to first settle the ownership question.”

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