In the early hours of 11 November, 2023, the weekly newspaper Watani showcased a compilation of short stories and insightful counsel for children by the esteemed Yacoub El-Sharouni under the evocative title “The Essence of Life Is Precious.” El-Sharouni had not contributed his regular column to the newspaper when, in the morning of 23 November, news of his departure began to reverberate.
In his last few columns, El-Sharouni implored his readers, especially the younger ones, to use their time wisely on constructive pursuits and joyous endeavors. He emphasised the importance of steering clear of regret, sorrow, or anger over transient and inconsequential matters, emphasising the irreplaceable nature of the moment.
This poignant message served as his parting gift, encapsulating the culmination of a rich and long life. He was a man who devoted his life to crafting tales for children, retelling enchanting Arabic narratives, and he left us at the venerable age of 93. His stories resonated globally, were translated into eight languages, and earned him such accolades as the prestigious United Nations Award for the finest global children’s novel and the State Appreciation Award, a historic first for a children’s author in Egypt.
El-Sharouni penned a daily narrative in Al-Ahram newspaper for an impressive span of 30 years. His life unfolded against a vibrant backdrop of narratives presented with the kind of whimsical illustrations adored by children. It was guided by Industriousness and love. Yet his departure coincided with innocent children being killed, prompting reflection on the implications for a storyteller of such tragic circumstances.
Since his early years in elementary school, El-Sharouni caught his Arabic teacher’s attention when he was discovered engrossed in writing rather than focusing on the lesson. When queried about his activities, he courageously revealed his pursuit: crafting a novel. The teacher’s initial scepticism of his Arabic transformed into encouragement, and from that moment on, El-Sharouni never stopped writing. His tireless efforts extended beyond the written word, as he visited villages, cities, schools, and libraries across Egypt and beyond, engaging with children and listening to them with genuine respect and appreciation. He persistently contributed to newspapers, offering stories as free gifts to children, underscoring the value of success, love, and imparting meaningful messages.
After a lifetime devoted to creative work, El-Sharouni left behind little material wealth. While acknowledging the role of money, he always emphasised the need to erect metaphorical barriers to safeguard against its influence. In his story “Known in the Land of Money,” he artfully portrays the pervasive impact of wealth on power dynamics, conflicts, envy, and societal attitudes.
In his January 2014 piece, “Struggle in the Lion’s Den,” El-Sharouni delves into the intricacies of the daddy lion’s relations with his cubs, his spouse, and the animal kingdom. The narrative unfolds with dramatic intensity, punctuated by a revealing assertion: “The enemy need not lose his life; it is enough for him to lose his pride!”
The ensuing dialogue features powerful and thought-provoking statements reminiscent of timeless proverbs. “Why do we surrender to traditions that reduce us to the status of the basest animals, inherited by whoever defeats our leader, as if we were bought for free?” Another example: “Success is our collective achievement, and failure is our shared setback.” In the denouement, the denizens of the forest emerge triumphant over the terror and humiliation orchestrated by an external adversary. A poignant reflection on the aged lion encapsulates the whole theme: “Has he finally understood that our respect for him must emanate from our assurance in him?”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 30 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly