Recent months have seen many initiatives by young Egyptian women concerned about the future of books and stories in the lives of their children. A move against only digital materials and to emphasise the importance of nourishing the imagination seems to be the main aim of such efforts.
Among such initiatives are those by Egyptian children’s writer and co-founder of the group Hadibadi Miranda Beshara, who started a Facebook page with Hend Adel and Raneem Hassan, with the aim of sharing resources in Arabic on books for the children of Egyptians like herself living abroad. Hadibadi also organises book-based tours for children in Egypt.
“We wanted to expand our work because we realised that there was a demand for such resources not only outside of Egypt, but also in Egypt as well and across the Arab world from parents who wanted to find good books in Arabic for their children. In addition to stories for younger children, they also wanted to find books on more adult topics, including divorce and family matters, relating books to real-life experiences,” she said.
“In fact, we realised that the relationship of our children with our country outside of schoolbooks can be very weak. There were few opportunities for walking tours for kids or museum tours for kids, like there are abroad,” she added, saying that as a result they had used an illustrated children-friendly book on the early 20th-century industrialist and financier Talaat Harb produced by the Al-Balsam publishers as the basis for a guided tour for children in downtown Cairo.
A statue of Harb dominates Talaat Harb Square in the downtown area, and a visit to this and the nearby Misr Bank, founded by Harb, in the company of a hakawati (professional story teller) and the Ismailia Company that does similar tours for adults is a very rich experience for children.
“We organised two tours. The first one was about the area, and the second was about Talaat Harb using the book. An artist was inspired to create a children-friendly map of downtown, and we used it in an exhibition in December 2019. We are currently discussing initiating such tours on a regular basis. In this way books can leave the classroom and be used as tools to help children discover and enjoy,” Beshara said.
The Frog T-Shirt project
The Frog T-Shirt project
The frog T-shirt project is another interesting initiative that shows the wit and resourcefulness of an Egyptian mother who wanted to deviate from mainstream Disney characters and show her daughter a whole new world of heroes. “I painted a frog on a white T-shirt for my daughter, representing a favourite book character,” explained anthropologist Manar Hazzaa. “It inspired me to open a discussion with other mothers about children’s books, and we all agreed on the difficulty of finding good books.”
Trying to encourage parents to read to their children and save them from looking at screens, Hazzaa came up with an activity that helps children spend quality time and have fun with their parents. In a three-hour session the children are told a story, play games affiliated to themes from it, try to make up a funny collective story, and then draw or illustrate themes from the story. “The idea is to make them laugh because reading is fun,” Hazzaa said, who is also a published children’s writer, whose latest book is titled Akh (Ooops!)
Tuta-Tuta adopts the same line of thought but is more concerned with colloquial Arabic. Founded by Reham Shendy, an economic analyst who lives in New York and the mother of twins who is passionate about reading for children. “I live abroad and found that the Arabic words that I use in talking to my children are really quite limited because of where we live. We do not discuss the countryside, animals or other countries in Arabic, so I came up with the idea of translating English children’s books into colloquial Arabic, so when I read to my children it’s easier for them to follow in Arabic as well as English,” she said.
Shendy started putting her translations online for parents wanting to follow in her footsteps. This has been a great success, and her site Tuta-Tuta has grown to include lots of stories translated into Egyptian Arabic. She focuses on the “read to” age group of children aged between three and seven years old and argues that this group needs material in colloquial Arabic because it’s easier for a child to grasp. It would be inappropriate to use classical Arabic for this age group, she said.
However, Shendy found some resistance to her ideas in the Egyptian book market, so she decided to self-publish her first colloquial Arabic compilation of stories entitled Kan Yama Kan. The book is on the market and takes material from the different governorates of Egypt while adopting internationally themed children’s stories.
Massar (Path) set up by Egyptian mother Doaa Abbasi is another landmark in the development of children’s books in Arabic. Having gained a degree in cultural development, Abbasi realised that the books sold in most children’s activity venues were quite commercial and were not sufficiently educational or directed towards young Egyptian readers.
Massar at Cairo Book Fair 2020
“I wanted to help mothers feeling already worn out from all their other obligations and having no time to search for appropriate books for their children. I thought that the best way to attract mothers would be to bring them books that they could use to help themselves,” Abbasi explained. She therefore started her “Path” initiative to collect books from all price ranges in various languages for Egyptian mothers and children, including information on the selected books and how to select the best books for children.
Dil-Hekaya (This is the Story) from storyteller and artist Samia Jaheen takes storytelling to another level of creativity. Focused on safeguarding and collecting folk children’s stories, Jaheen picked the name for her story collection from a poem called the “Lamb and the Wolf” by her late father the vernacular poet Salah Jaheen.
“I wanted my father to be part of my project, so I picked his poem as a lucky charm,” Jaheen explained. Her own passion for folk stories led her to compile them in oral versions so that the rhymes and language were safeguarded. She also picks stories that are pure fun. “To me, fun is the moral of the stories. They enhance the imagination and provide all sorts of emotions for children, allowing them to be familiar with them in real life too,” she said.
“A good story opens up lots of questions. For example, one of the children reading the collection once explained that she liked the antagonist of the story because she did what she pleases. So, no matter what message we think we are giving them, the children will always find their way into the stories – something which is quite alright,” Jaheen concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly