March ‘17
The co-founder of Diwan bookstores

March ‘17
Nadia Wassef
Nadia Wassef


The co-founder of Diwan bookstores, Nadia Wassef, isn’t just one of Egypt’s most loved entrepreneurs, who provided Egyptian citizens the chance to delve into the renowned bookstore’s culturally vast literature collection of rare books as well as best-selling novels around the world; she’s a voracious reader herself who has dedicated her life to vindicate women’s rights and reify equality through the power of her words.

You’re widely known as the co-founder of Diwan Bookstores. Tell us about yourself and how Diwan happened.

Diwan was simply a case of positive coincidences overlapping in different spheres. More simply put: the right people at the right time in the right place!  It was in Cairo in 16 years ago that Hind, my sister and partner, and I met with a group of friends.  We were all at a crossroads in our lives, questioning careers, and rethinking hopes and dreams. Cairo was ready for the change we wanted. There was growing interest in culture, its production and consumption, and we capitalized on what we saw happening around us, and became a part of it.  We were avid readers who had come to realize that we couldn’t find a space that celebrated books, their writers, and their readers.  So we decided to create the space that would break down the boundaries of east and west and showcase forms of cultural output: music, film, and the written word.  Sixteen years ago, Hind Wassef, Nihal Schawky, and I, have tried to give our country our best. We worked hard, fought, laughed, and struggled to give birth to Diwan, grow it, and protect it through some very challenging times.

What sparked your passion in reading?

As a child, I had difficulty fitting in with the world around me. Books were a welcome escape: they took me into other worlds, they freed my imagination, and they taught me to love this world with all its goodness and disappointments. Reading showed me how to challenge everything I know, and instilled in me the belief that we create the realities we want to live.  Fiction is just as valuable as fact, if not more so. Ultimately, reading is how you liberate your mind and yourself.  Your words are the most powerful thing you will ever possess in your life.  Use them wisely.

Tell us about Daughters of the Nile.

Daughters of the Nile: Egyptian Women’s Movements, 1900-1960, is a labour of love that my sister, Hind, and I, worked on for many years and was finally published 16 years back by the American University in Cairo Press.  It is a photographic collection of women in Egypt trying to change their world by pioneering in different fields, lobbying for their rights and the rights of others, and being role models for future generations.  It is also a tribute to the past, a record of this country’s rich culture, and a nudge to the future.  What I find especially powerful in this book is that all the pictures collected for it either came through word of mouth, or from old magazines that littered the pavements, or hidden in warehouses of the old ezbekiya used book market. This endeavour was an attempt at saving a visual history that may well have gotten lost because no one stopped to record it.

Your work history shows great interest in women’s empowerment. How do you envision the future of Arab women?

I envision the future of Arab women to be similar to that of Arab men, and the Arab world: pretty dismal unless we stop, think, and do something about it.  We need to become familiar with our past, where we have been, to actually have a plan for where we hope to be.  One of our main problems as a region and as individuals is that we are in a constant disconnect with that past.  People who don’t know their past will never be able to understand their present, and will always be at the mercy of whatever the future brings.  This applies to us each as individuals, made up of layers of experiences and dreams, facts and fictions—we need to reconcile them and move forward.  Efforts to improve women—and men’s—lot in life have always existed.  Today we need to harness the past in service to the future.  We need to be consistent and small goal-oriented.  We have to forge alliances, set small, achievable goals, and take responsibility for our triumphs and failures.

How have Women’s Studies changed your perspective?

Gender is one of the many lenses I see the world through.  It is not the only one, because that would cause a kind of myopia to how I choose to understand that world.  We should also look at the world around us through the lenses of class, power, ethnicity, and sexuality.  I read Simone De Beauvoir in my teens and she had a profound impact on my way of thinking.  And her words, more than fifty years later, never cease to amaze me in how relevant they are: “one is not born, but rather, becomes a woman.”  The same applies to men.  We put different forms of constraints and pressures on men and women in an effort to mold them into something that patriarchal power structures can accept and manipulate.  The basic awareness of this is the first step to changing it.

What makes Diwan different?

Diwan is a labour of love that came from the heart.  It had a sincerity about it that spoke to our clients very clearly and that would explain the loyalty and attachment that people feel for Diwan to this day. 

Do you consider yourself a feminist? Tell us more about your philosophies.

Absolutely. I can’t imagine that any sane human being wouldn’t be a feminist, whether they are a man or a woman.   

Do you have any goals you have yet to achieve?

Too many to mention! I always have goals, and once I am close to achieving one of them, I move on to the next.  Humans are the sum of their aspirations: if we stop dreaming, we die.  I am always mindful of not feeling that I have reached my goal.  Once you feel you have arrived at your destination you tend to get lazy and that is when failure and lethargy set in.  I always feel the need to be outside of my comfort zone, to always be struggling, and striving for something.  That is how our best selves are born and continue to reincarnate.  Today, I am in the process of doing my third Masters Degree.  My first was in English & Comparative Literature (American University in Cairo), my second was in Social Anthropology (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London), and this one is in Creative Writing (Birkbeck, University of London).  I have to confess that I find this one the hardest.  Writing fiction and nonfiction is a very revealing art and it is one that forces you to rethink your life, and your world, to better understand it, reformulate it, and share it with others.  That is a daunting and humbling task.  It also doesn’t help that I am 43 years old, struggle with my ability to focus, and I am a mother of two very challenging young women: Zein (twelve) and Layla (eleven).  They keep me on my toes and force me to always try to do better and be better.

By Mayar El-Shamy