Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books
The second page of this story book for children begins with a simple and yet powerful statement: ”Egypt’s young people decided it was finally time to let their voices be heard, and so they began to march in the streets.” It refers to a real event that took place in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2011. That year, Egypt witnessed a popular uprising: Protests by hundreds of thousands of young people filled the streets of Cairo and Alexandria calling for the end of the regime that had been in power for several decades. Their actions eventually led to the fall of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, as well as members of his government.
At the heart of the story is the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which opened in Alexandria in 2002. Located across from the University of Alexandria, it stands not far from the site of the ancient Library of Alexandria, the greatest library of antiquity, which was built some 2,300 years ago, but no longer exists. During the 2011 protests, the library was closed down by its director, Ismail Serageldin, who feared that it would be vandalized. Those who did come to the rescue and saved the library from vandals were young people, who formed a ring around the library, holding hands, and shouting “This is our library. Don’t touch it.” And the library was not touched, and its collections were protected by peaceful protesters who loved their institution and did not want to see any harm done to it.
The story is told in the voice of a young woman, the main protagonist, who is never clearly identified in the main text of the book. She appears to be modeled after Shaima Saad, a former librarian at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, who is thanked at the end of the book for “the generous sharing of her unique primary source information about the Bibiotheca Alexandrina and the actual protests in Alexandria, in which she participated.” Her photograph can be found also at the end of the book, in a collection of photos of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.
The main protagonist in the book depicts how she joined the protesters and marched holding posters calling for the fall of the regime. She describes her feelings of excitement and hope, but also of fear as she learns that angry protesters had set fire to cars and burnt down a police station. What if they tried to burn down the library as well? The realization of what this would mean terrifies her: ”Our ancient Egyptian stories are kept alive here, in the books, and in the carved stone…We were free inside the library even when we were not free outside. We could not let our Alexandria Library burn.” When Ismail Serageldin, the director comes out to meet the crowds, he tells them that there are no doors they cannot not break, and that many of the walls are made of glass, and that only the will of the people can protect it. From the crowd emerges a young man, then others follow, who encircle the library and create a shield to protect it. They spread a huge Egyptian flag across the steps of the library and shout in unison “We love you Egypt.”
The story is illustrated with striking collage created by Susan L. Roth, the author and/or illustrator of more than forty books for children, including Listen to the Wind, a # 1 New York Times bestseller. The background of the book flaps and of some of the illustrations is a photo-montage inspired by the 500 different alphabets carved on the granite wall of the library. The head coverings, and the decorative quilt motifs in the book were inspired by wedding tents set up for celebrations in Egyptian cities. Many of the posters shown in the book are in Arabic script.
Karen Leggett Abouraya, the co-author of this book is a radio and print journalist, who has served as president of the Children’s Book Guild in Washington DC. She has also reviewed children’s books for the New York Times. Aburaya was assisted by her Egyptian family in taking the photographs for the book, and she thanks her husband for his Arabic translations, and sharing his cultural sensibilities.
Whilst the book is stunningly illustrated, and the text is simple but moving, the organization somewhat lacks order and cohesion. It is more of a patchwork of separate although related items that seem to have been added to the core story. For example, after the story ends there are a couple of pages of photographs, followed by a brief text on the ancient library and the new library of Alexandria, after which there is a text on the January 25 revolution, which retells the story that has just been told. A short bibliography consisting of three books appears on the next page, followed by text that spells out words like freedom, democracy, revolution, etc.. in Arabic and English scripts. Finally, there is a full page titled ”A Note from Susan I. Roth,” that explains her relationship to Karen Legett Abouraya and that of their families. I would have preferred fewer explanatory notes and additions, and more core story about the library itself, what it holds, how it is organized, why it is so important, in the voice of the protagonist rather than in that of the authors. Recommended.
This review reflects the opinions of the reviewer, and not the views of the Library of Congress.
Published in Africa Access Review (March 6, 2013)
Copyright 2013 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Mary-Jane Deeb, Library of Congress