What is a Lullaby? A lullaby is defined as a quiet, gentle song full of soothing refrains to lull a child to sleep and even sometimes the reader too! However, Egyptian Lullaby by Zeena M. Pliska is a different kind of lullaby – it is an ode, a remembrance, and a tribute to a grand old city, Cairo. It is a memorial honoring Cairo with beautiful, bold, colorful, and lively illustrations by Hatem Aly. The prose has a delightful and energetic pace with sounds introduced and repeated in the story such as swish, swoosh, clip, clop, beep, honk, toot, ruff, ruff, etc. It is an amusing and busy lullaby which could easily not put the reader and children to sleep.
Egyptian Lullaby is a rhythmic celebration of times past and present. It conjures memories of a stroll around the streets of Cairo to help a young girl remember and keep those memories alive. It is a tribute to the tumultuous, busy streets in Cairo which one loves, or detests. I must admit that I write this review with a great love of those busy hectic streets. Cairo is a city that never sleeps; a truism and not a cliche. It is an active city with over 22 million people during the day who live their normal lives: work, play, and visit. Cairo was founded in 969 CE at the point where the Nile River splits into two branches and forms the delta area leading to the Mediterranean Sea. It is a city that has grown so much in size and people over the centuries yet, still maintains that central focal point of so many things Egyptian. One can be in Alexandria in the north and say tomorrow, I am going to Egypt i.e. Cairo… Cairo is Egypt and Egypt is Cairo – both are “Masr” in Arabic.
Cairo is a layered city, so there is the old and the new side by side or the new literally on top of the old. One must remove each layer to look, learn and enjoy. This lullaby gives the reader that layered and connected view of Cairo. The author, Zeena Pliska, with Hatem Aly’s beautiful illustrations (both of Egyptian heritage) starts with a delicious hot drink called “sahlab” that brings memories just from drinking the warm milk with nuts, raisins, and coconut. The child in the story recalls the lullaby that her Auntie Fatma sings to her starting with the grand Nile River which flows through the city, enabling Egypt’s very existence. The Nile is a “heba” in Arabic, i.e. a gift from God to Egypt and its people – so much emanates from the Nile River.
The lullaby begins with the beautiful drawing of the famous felucca sailboat on the Nile and other smaller boats as they glide along the river. Then the author reminds us of the muezzin (the person who calls the faithful to prayer) from the minaret of the mosque with saying: Allah u Akbar (God is great). Then, there is the old-fashioned donkey pulling the cart side by side with the modern cars and bus drivers honking in the streets. Another fixture in Cairo’s streets are the fruit and vegetable sellers – the book features the man shouting to advertise his watermelons; there is the dog barking and finally children playing soccer (the national game).
The repetition of the sounds is soothing, lyrical, and reminds the reader and listener of all the characters, and the typical sounds found in Cairo. This is a very helpful technique for a young reader and listener to repeat and remember each character, as in a memory game: the Nile River, the boat, the muezzin’s call to prayer, the donkey and cart, the cars, and buses’ horns, the watermelon seller’s shouting to sell his wares, the dog barking and the children playing soccer.
A few comments: Initially, the story refers to Auntie Fatma then switches to the Arabic Ametti (which means auntie on the father’s side); this could be confusing to the English/non-Arabic speaking reader. I find the use of sahlab hot drink an interesting but odd choice since it was not the most popular drink in my Egyptian household. In my opinion, sahlab is more popular in the Levant region of the Middle East e.g. Lebanon, and Syria; while hot chocolate or hot tea with milk are very popular… but again, this can be a taste, and generation difference. The use of Arabic words without the English translation forces the reader to go to the glossary. This is both positive and negative since on the positive side; it makes the reader quickly discover the glossary and use it.
Congratulations to the illustrator for the beautiful, colorful, and lush illustrations in Egyptian Lullaby. I greatly appreciate Hatem Aly’s tribute to Cairo where he brings a slice of the city into our hands. He is correct in writing that it is “just a fraction of what you might see in Cairo on a typical day.” Zeena Pliska’s note to the reader focuses on her hope to present a love letter to Cairo, the “sweet homeland” of her family and she has indeed succeeded! She hopes to show the reader a day in an otherwise normal life where Cairenes work, eat, sleep, love, and play… and indeed, Egyptian Lullaby gives us that gift.
Heba F. El-Shazli, Ph.D.
George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government
Published in Africa Access Review (December 20, 2023)
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