The founder of Dar Merit publishing house has sparked the careers of Egypt’s best writers
In a downtown Cairo apartment building not far from Talaat Harb square, an elaborate and ageing staircase leads to a closed white door on the first floor. At the sound of the doorbell, a volley of barks issues from inside: publisher Mohamed Hashem’s labrador named Lilly and five fullygrown puppies are running around the headquarters of Dar Merit, one of Cairo’s most respected contemporary publishing houses. Books overlay the walls in the office’s entrance, including titles such as ‘Pomegranate Love’ by Samaa Zeidan and ‘Dear Count Dracula’ by Adel Samih. Hashem is deep in conversation with Hussein Abdel Jawad, a writer and former protégé of Naguib Mahfouz. They pore over cover designs for Abdel Jawad’s latest book.
Hashem, his voice croaky from ceaseless smoking, says that this new office ‘doesn’t feel like home’. Besides the bookshelves, most walls are blank, and a few paintings rest on side tables, waiting to be hung. It’s as if, even after two years of use, the space is a temporary one. Dar Merit was forced to move its operations from its long-standing office on the iconic Qasr Al Nil Street, mere metres away from its current location, when the landlord refused to renew the lease. It was a prosaic end to the place where the publishing house was founded in 1998 and blossomed into a gathering place for Cairo’s literary scene.
Dar Merit was established with an ethos not to practice any form of censorship or moral upholding over its authors. ‘This opens up the horizons of the writers, giving them the space to write freely knowing no one will censor them,’ says Hashem, who co-founded Dar Merit with the help of the late critic and writer Ibrahim Mansour, among others. The publishing house has nonetheless had to take on many battles to get its authors’ texts to the public and capture people’s interest in its offerings.
We published Alaa Al Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building’ when no one else would have published it
Where does the name ‘Dar Merit’ come from?
We wanted a name that reflected Egypt’s identity and were inspired by Ancient Egyptian civilisation, since it was based on art and culture. Art is what they left us: sculptures, paintings, musical instruments, pottery. Meritamun was the daughter of Pharaoh Ramses II – the Egyptian author Gamal Al Ghitani was the first to write about her in Al Akhbar newspaper when her statue was discovered in Akhmim in Upper Egypt. So I named my first daughter Merit and then the publishing house was named that as well. This name established our approach to running the house: we would not take funding from anybody whether in the region or outside of it, and we would not censor an author from any standpoint but rather evaluate their work artistically. Before Dar Sharqiat, Dar Merit and other endeavours, writers didn’t have many channels to publish through.
What was your background before you founded Dar Merit?
I worked in painting and plastering home interiors from 1983 till 1986 in Amman to make some money. I went there because Egyptians don’t need a visa to go to Jordan and they allow you to work. I got to know the literary scene in Amman and the writers working there at that time, and they helped me publish my writing in Muntada Al Fikr Al Arabi magazine. From there, upon returning to Cairo, I worked in Al Mahrousa Publishing House, as a marketing manager and editor.
Have you witnessed any literary movements arise while working with writers?
Literary movements locally are influenced by literary movements around the globe or by local context. Some texts appear that have similar aesthetic and literal elements, but each writer has their own story, experience and voice. The authors who started in the 1990s, who are now in their 40s, are a strong generation, and their writing is persisting. Some were looking at life in the peripheries of the country, whether in art or marginalised physical locations for example. Writing – and culture, generally – has always had political leanings and it’s common to find artists who are critical of the status quo whether politically or socially.
To our luck the late 1990s was a time when a lot of young literary voices were coming onto the scene, such as Hamdi Abu Golayyel, Ehab Abdel Hamid, Yasser Abdel Latif and Ahmed Mourad, who is very well known now. We published the first edition of Alaa Al Aswany’s ‘The Yacoubian Building’ at a time when no one else would have published it as well as the first edition of ‘Being Abbas Al Abd’ by Ahmed Alaidy. Of course, other publishers bought the rights after our edition was such a hit. We managed to keep our ratings up for a long time, due to the quality of the manuscripts we were selecting but also the air of freedom we gave to writers.
Dar Merit also translates books into Arabic. How do you select texts to translate?
The lack of Arabic translations of contemporary literature from around the world motivated us to translate some. In the past we have translated from French, German, Japanese, Italian – many languages. We choose the texts based on recommendations from friends around the world. For example, Samir Greiss in Germany helped us get the translation rights for the Nobel Laureate Elfriede Jelinek’s ‘The Piano Teacher’.
Do you also translate books published by Dar Merit into other languages?
This is up to the writer. I don’t get involved. I’ve never taken a percentage from a writer if they’ve won a prize or been paid for translating and publishing a text in another language. Many of our writers have been translated, and that makes me happy.
Dar Merit is not just a publishing house – it’s considered a movement and a cultural centre as well. What events do you host in the space?
We’ve had several exhibitions of the works of Omar Al Fayoumi, Assem Sharaf, Dina Gharib and Yasmine Al Khatib. We also hold many literary talks such as a monthly salon with Alaa Al Aswany, and from time to time book discussions. This place also hosts many of the independent theatre makers who want to hold rehearsals. We have events here very often and they generally fill up the space with young writers and enthusiasts.
This article appears in the issue64Buy Now