|Address:||6 Kasr al-Nil, 1st floor, next to Rivoli Theater, close to Talaat Harb Sq (map)** (location moving)|
Facebook page: Dar Merit -دار ميريت and دار ميريت للنشر
|Bookstore Hours:||open most afternoons and evenings|
One of the most important literary publishing houses in Egypt (and arguably the most important one for several years after its founding in 1998), Merit Publishing House is known for putting out often edgy literature and previously unknown pioneers in the field. While Mohamed Hashem was only one of the original founders of the house, it is his vision that drives Merit and is behind the house’s unwavering commitment to freedom of thought and expression. In part an attempt to break free from the constraints and frustrations he encountered when working for the government-run house al-Mahrousa, Hashem opened Merit with a goal of publishing quality literature without any censorship on the part of the house, and thus it is unsurprising that this house produces (mostly literary) texts that push the envelope, some of which other publishers have refused to touch. At times Hashem’s risks have paid off, as with runaway bestsellers like The Yacoubian Building by Alaa al-Aswany (trans. Humphrey Davies, AUC Press, 2004) and Being Abbas El Abd by Ahmed Alaidy (trans. Humphrey Davies, AUC Press, 2006), each of which was published originally with Merit after having been rejected by numerous other houses, both private and public.
Speaking to Merit’s impact on literature, award-winning Bedouin Egyptian writer Hamdi Abu Golayyel (who has published all of his works, save one, with Merit) told us during one of our visits to the house: “Merit is more like a literary movement than a publishing house.” During the January 25th revolution Hashem went one step further and declared Merit an unofficial headquarters of the revolution—convenient given its location just blocks from Tahrir Square. Eventually his activism attracted the attention of the army and they issued a warrant for Hashem’s arrest in December 2011, though all charges were dropped quickly, following widespread and vocal international support.
It was in 2006 that Hashem’s efforts first reached the international community, with his winning of the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award, and in 2011, just prior to the army’s arrest warrant, Hashem won the German PEN’s Hermann Kesten prize in recognition of his actions during the revolution. While more recently established houses like Dar Elain and Dar al-Tanweer have begun to rival Merit in publishing literature by new, young authors, the name of Mohamed Hashem and Dar Merit continue to carry a lot of weight among writers and intellectuals in Cairo and abroad.
Perhaps the most familiar name to anyone interested in contemporary Egyptian literature, Merit and its owner Mohamed Hashem are well-covered in the press. In addition to publishing groundbreaking and controversial literary works and, more recently, memoirs and yawmiyyat about the revolution, Merit is currently in the midst of translating several books from Japanese that Hashem himself selects. Merit books can be found in most bookstores in Cairo that have an Arabic literature section, but you may not find the specific title you’re looking for. If that’s the case, the best place to check is at the publishing house itself.
A visit to Merit can be a bit intimidating (or exhilarating, depending on your personality and luck). Their original home is on the first floor of the building just to the left of the Rivoli Theater on Kasr al-Nil, and you only find confirmation that you’re on the right path after you step into the doorway, where you’ll see the recognizable logo in an orange and blue sign next to the staircase. Most often you’ll find the door closed and locked, but don’t be discouraged. Ring the bell on the left and you should find Hashem or one of his guests around to open it and let you in. Once inside the bookstore upstairs you’re usually left to browse the shelves of novels, short stories, poetry, and critical studies as long as you like. If you go in the early afternoon you will usually find the place quiet with few people and maybe a cat or dog hanging around; later in the evening the place is busier and usually other people (writers, often) will be gathered in the room off the bookshop area. You’ll nearly always find Hashem there, too, happy to recommend a book and maybe even offer a cup of tea. If you want to attend a discussion or signing, either just swing by or you can try their Facebook page.
Last updated: April 2015