The Chicks Behind the Lit

This is the story of the little store that could. The store that revived an ailing publishing industry, reshaped an entire generation’s literary conceptions and reminded a nation that sometimes, there’s nothing better than a good book. Enigma’s Managing Editor Amy Mowafi speaks to Nadia Wassef, Hind Wassef and Nihal Schawky, the three women behind the bookstore Diwan and a dream to revive the glory days of Egyptian culture.

It was just one small shop, on a little corner of a big city. And really, that should have been it. Because shops don’t change things. They don’t revive dying industries; they don’t generate hope or encourage talent. They certainly don’t make the world a better place. Besides if you are going to insist on opening your own store, at least make it something fabulous, glamorous, modern. Crazy, sexy, cool sells… not… books. So really, a bookstore? But they persevered.

Three women with one small store and one big dream insisted on selling books, culture, heritage and ideas. People scoffed but they did it anyway, driven by an ‘if we build it, they will come and they will read’ mentality. And slowly but surely people came. And sure enough, they read. And then this one shop changed the industry. Of course, it sounds hyperbolic, the stuff of glossy magazine fluff, but somehow, it’s true. Because suddenly there was this beautiful, sleek, sophisticated outlet for books. A haven for literature. A breezy, easy, airy space where it was a pleasure simply to browse, or sit in their in-store café, coffee and cookie in hand, and just… stop. A moment of serenity far from Cairo’s madding crowds. And it didn’t matter if you were into Dostoevsky or the Devil Wears Prada. You’d find it all. From the classics to chick-lit, from biographies to babies, from the smart stuff, to the silly stuff, it was all here and it was all OK. And, yes it sounds so basic, so obvious and redundant, but it just hadn’t been done before. Not in Egypt. Not like this.

There was something about this space that inexplicably evoked Egypt’s glory days. And there’s nothing more enticing than a little nostalgia. The word spread far and wide. And important people from distant lands started to arrive. Literary giants gave talks within the cosy environs of this little shop on a little corner. Paulo Coelho and Ahdaf Soueif, Amitav Ghosh, Robert Fisk and countless more. And it all became, well… sort of cool. And maybe even a little bit sexy. Suddenly people were buying books again. Not just academics, or intellectuals or nerds. But ordinary people. And you know what that’s called? Demand. So local publishers got wise; instead of scruffily printed fare, forlorn looking books, written by a standard rota of done and dusted Egyptian writers, destined for dark and dreary bookstores, publishers started producing international quality tomes. They even started scouring out fresh, young writers, and investing in new talent. Egypt’s ailing publishing industry was once again thriving with energy, excitement and enthusiasm. Today, at the buzzing Diwan offices, a hive of activity hidden in a gorgeous old art-deco Zamalek building, the three women behind Diwan – sisters Nadia and Hind Wassef and Nihal Schawky can’t believe how far they’ve come.

One Diwan spawned four more branches, in Heliopolis, Mohandessin, the Cairo Marriott hotel and a seasonal one on the North Coast. They also have two Diwan stations in Maadi City Centre and Alexandria City Centre. “It was all cosmic geometry at work,” says Nadia, who armed with her wicked wit and endless reserves of energy is the most outspoken of this dynamic trio, a virtual whirlwind of activity spinning through the store, ensuring her almost impossibly-exacting standards are met. Back in 2001, both Nadia and her sister Hind had bowed out of the frustrating world of NGOs and were mulling over their next step. “We shared a love of books and culture, and harboured nostalgia for the glory days of Egyptian culture,” explains Nadia. “And one day we were just sitting around dreaming, when we hit upon this idea of opening a bookstore.” Of course, it wouldn’t be just any old bookstore.

They wanted to create a platform for those Arab arts that had become lost in time, impossible to find – Arabic movies and music in particular. As fate would have it – because fate seemed insistent on having its way with these girls – the perfect property miraculously made itself available on a bustling corner of Zamalek. “It was that location that swayed us,” says Nadia. “If a bookstore was not going to work in that location, it wasn’t going to work anywhere. We’d just be creating the same problem, which is putting books in crappy locations and complaining that they don’t sell. They don’t sell because nobody knows about them! And that doesn’t just go for books. It goes for old Egyptian movies, collecting dust in archives because of some ridiculous distribution agreement that no one can even find.”

At that very same moment, the Arab media company Fonoon had bought the rights to decades’ worth of Egyptian cinema, and were undertaking a massive project to digitally remaster and reprint the country’s legendary movie history onto DVD. “We could finally commercialise culture, making it easily accessible and beautifully presented,” says Nadia. Meanwhile a then un-known writer by the name of Alaa Al Aswany was putting the final touches to a book by the name of The Yacoubian Building. By the time Diwan came into being in March of 2002, his novel had become the literary phenomenon of our time. It was being sold on street corners and being read by street vendors. It was sparking an interest in books. Put that all together and what do you get? Perfect timing. The initial roll call of private investors was impressive; Hind’s husband Nader Kallini, entrepreneur Maher Maksoud and businessman Ali Dessouki all came on board. Legal Advisor, Ziad Bahaaeddin, a family friend of the Wassef sisters, joined the party as did the achingly elegant Nihal Schawky, a long lost family friend, and honorary third sister. “From the beginning, the women were the workers and the men were silent partners who contributed with ideas,” says Nadia laughing.

The three women dove headfirst into the project of a lifetime, wilfully ignoring the naysayers and flying in the face of convention. “When we started approaching publishers and writers, people would tell us we were dreaming,” says Nadia. “They’d say it was bad idea, we had no history in the industry, that our business model was weak. But my attitude was, Whatever, I want to try, so just let me try, and even if I fail, I’ll still be happy. The one thing worse than failure is not even trying.” “We just intuitively knew it was going to work,” adds Hind, whose cool, calm composure belies an intense focus and a sharp-tongue, unleashed only in-case-of-emergency. And there were plenty of those. “The early years of this experience can definitely be titled the Art of Not Knowing Better,” says Nadia, who is more than happy to discuss their mistakes. “The one thing worse than making a mistake is making the same mistake twice.” And if anyone knows how to make lemonade out of lemons, it’s these girls.

There was, for example, the curious case of the non-existent marketing budget. Having splashed out on sleek, sumptuous interiors by top designer Mona Hussein and invested heavily in a striking logo and beautifully crafted carrier bags, they had no money left to promote their store. So they turned their oversight into their strength. To this day, Diwan does not spend any money on marketing and those beautiful bags have become their main promotional tool. “They are our way of telling customers that we appreciate them and we love them. We want them to have something that lasts,” explains Nadia. “They’ve also become our main means of communication. Whenever we have anything to announce or celebrate, it says it on the bag.” And the Diwan logo became iconic. A combination of Arabic and Roman script created by graphic artist Nermine Hammam of Equinox Graphics, it spawned a thousand copies and launched a design trend. If every successful man has an incredible woman behind him, these three women have a phenomenal team behind them; a team they have tenaciously trained and moulded to exceed all local expectations.

The attention to detail is at times, by their own admittance, a little unnerving. “We give our staff respect, but we demand the same in return,” explains Nadia, who had few qualms about providing each member of their staff a toiletry set that included toothbrush and shaver. The importance of respectful body language, especially when dealing with women, was drilled incessantly into them, making Diwan one of the few places in Egypt where women feel safe enough to spend time on their own. The embryonic team were even taught to appreciate and understand the books they were selling. The man behind the cash-desk may not have a high-school degree, but he does know who is on the Booker Prize shortlist. “The fact that our floor-staff come from a very basic background and yet are knowledgeable, polite and incredibly professional is something that our customers really enjoy about the store,” says Nihal. “They feel we’re working to raise professional standards in Egypt.”

Within a year, Diwan even started to attract a calibre of staff – talented multi-lingual graduates from the best universities – who would previously have balked at the idea of working for a bookstore. “I am proud of every single one of our 200 employees and what they’ve achieved with us,” says Hend. “The women are a wonderful case in point. 12 percent of our staff is female, but they’re the ones with all the managerial roles!” In the seven years since Diwan opened its doors, Hind and Nadia have had three children between them. Yet they’ve worked determinedly through their pregnancies and their emotional ups and downs, and in the process, they’ve created a second family at Diwan. “Diwan will always be my first born,” says Nadia.

In the last year alone, they’ve rolled out three new stores across Egypt and there are even bigger plans in the offing. “We sat down at the end of 2006, and the general mood was, you’ve come a long way baby,” says Nadia. “So we had to make a decision – either we stay as this little boutique store in Zamalek, and be happy that we were the first or we take this concept for a spin and see what we can do. We decided to do the latter out of a sense of adventure and really enjoying what we do.”

As our interview draws to a close, with talk of children to attend to and bedtime stories to be read, I ask how much of Diwan’s success is attributable to the fact they’re women. Were they perhaps a little more willing than men to ignore bottom line in their quest to make an altruistic dream a reality? All three women are immediately dismissive of the idea that gender played a role. It simply is what it is: a success story, born of desire, determination and a lot of hard work. “There has never been anything in my life that I wanted to achieve and have felt that being a woman has stood in my way,” says Nadia. “The only hindrances have been a lack of knowledge or access to resources. And I’ve solved that through books. There’s nothing I’ve ever needed in my life that I couldn’t find in a book. And that’s not just PR, that’s a fact. And that’s something we’ve proven through Diwan. Anything you need to know, learn, understand, it’s all there, in that one bookstore.” And whoever said that one small shop couldn’t make a very big difference?

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