“We never thought of ourselves as businesswomen or booksellers; we were readers who had a passion for books and wanted to share that with others”
In 2002, Nadia Wassef (MA Creative Writing 2017) and her sister co-founded Diwan in Cairo, which has grown into Egypt’s leading chain of bookstores. Nadia, who received her MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, is one of Egypt’s foremost entrepreneurs and regularly appears in the Forbes list of the Most Powerful Women in the Middle East.
Prior to founding Diwan, Nadia worked for an NGO. “Like many people in their twenties, I was eager to change the world” she recalls. “When I realised that the world wasn’t going to change on my timetable or in the way that I hoped, I refocused my dreams. Egypt was a country brimming with change and optimism. My sister and I both had post-graduate degrees in literature, and we were amazed that the modern style bookstore hadn’t come to Egypt yet. So, we decided to create it”.
She has recently finished writing her first novel. “After my MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, I found the confidence to start writing” she notes. The book both tells her personal story as an entrepreneur and is a social history of Cairo during the twenty-first century.
Nadia is a longstanding campaigner for women’s rights in Egypt. “I was involved with the Female Genital Mutilation Task Force during the 1990s, focusing my energies on advocacy and research”. There she worked with anthropologist and activist Marie Assad, who she credits as a mentor; “under her wise leadership, I got to know my country, my people, and myself” she reflects.
“We often judge others and ourselves too quickly and out of context” she continues. “What we fail to realise is that people make decisions based on their life choices and the forces that govern their existence. Failing to understand that reality means that we can’t change it”.
Her advice for Birkbeck students interested in entrepreneurship? “Do something that you are passionate about and that rings true to you. Block out everything else. Think about the money, but don’t think too much about the money. And listen to Samuel Beckett; ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better’. I have and I continue to”.