Hidden treasures in Sayeda Zeinab bookstore

For people keen on unearthing the best of Western and Arabic literature, the collection of mini-libraries and bookstores under the bridge at Medan Abou El Reesh in Sayeda Zeinab is definitely a must-visit.

Under the bridge you’ll find a number of bookstores and their passionate owners. But there’s one individual, Mohamed Nageh, whose 22-year-old backstreet collection stands out in particular, as does his taste for Fyodor Dostyevsky and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

“It started when I was a teenager. My passion and love for books led me to read and collect as many pieces as I could. Eventually, the size of my collection grew so large that my friends and family persuaded me to start selling the books, and it just built from there,” the 42-year-old bookstore owner said.

He refers to his collections, which amount to thousands of books, as Maktabet Kadry (Kadry Library) and Maktabet El Elmeya (Library of Knowledge). A determined reader can find all sorts of material here, including old (and valuable) gems of literature, such as first editions of Oscar Wilde novels, piled in the corners of dusty warehouses.

The challenge lies solely in navigating through the plethora of books — a task which Nageh himself is usually very happy to embark on.

But despite the valuable items scattered throughout his collection, Nageh claims that the book selling business brings in little money; the reward is the service he feels he is doing to society.

“It’s fulfilling to help people educate themselves properly. My favorite thing about the job is the feeling I get when someone asks me for a rare book and I find it for them.”

And every day he adds to his enormous collections. “Sometimes old libraries burn down, or a family member passes away and the family wants someone to clear all of their belongings. So people in the neighborhood call me and let me know. Usually I find these incredible books that are historically valuable just being thrown away, so I rush in there and take them.”

Despite having such an impressive collection, Nageh maintains that he does not sell to the Cairo book trade because he fears his pieces would be taken wholesale and never fully appreciated or seen again in local areas that need them most.

“I know I could sell a lot of these for hundreds of pounds to proper vendors, but I am not overly interested in the business side of things. I love these books, they are not just used books but important books, and I want them to end up in the right hands.”

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