Shelf Life; Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef; Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

Shelf Life; Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef; Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. 224 pages; $27.00 (hardcover); reading level: adult.

In 2002, at age 27, Nadia Wassef, her older sister, and a friend decide to open abookstore strikingly different from the ones available in Egypt under President Hosni Mubarak: “those mismanaged by the government; those affiliated with particular publishing houses; and the small local shops, which primarily sold newspapers and stationery.” The store, Diwan, would be her “love letter to Egypt.” Shelf Life, written two decades later, would be her “love letter to Diwan.” Within the pages of her book, Wassef—with generosity, honesty, and a vocabulary that will make a sailor blush—takes readers on a virtual tour of the flagship establishment that would become the prototype for a chain of Diwans. Wassef recounts how such an outrageous undertaking managed to succeed in a bureaucratic, repressive, patriarchal society by leading us through the store, section by section, giving a cleared-eyed account of her personal struggles as a businesswoman, wife (twice divorced), and mother of two daughters. Over the course of the tour, she also manages to enlighten readers on the history, politics, and culture of Egypt. There’s humor and heartbreak here along with a cast of characters that ranges from the irritating to the quirky to the fiercely-determined. Effortlessly and artfully narrated, the last page brings two startling revelations: that the end has come so quickly and that so much has been learned along the way.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

Connie Nordhielm WooldridgeBiography | View

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