Outreach Symposium: New Directions in Egyptian Children’s Literature

For the first time at the American University in Cairo, authors, publishers, illustrators, educators, critics, translators, academics and interested members of the general public meet under one roof to talk about Arabic children’s literature.

By Fatima Ahmed and Rawan Elnagar

Photo: courtesy Yasmine Motawy.

On the 20th of October, as part of its public outreach efforts, AUC’s HUSSLab  hosted a children’s literature symposium funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation at AUC’s Tahrir campus. It was organized by HUSSLab’s first post-doctoral fellow, Yasmine Motawy, and it was clearly a gathering that was a long time coming, as by 9:30 a.m., there was already a rapt audience of just under 100 (yes, almost everyone was there!) waiting to hear Marcia Lynx Qualey’s keynote speech titled: “Taking Arabic Children’s Literature Abroad: Translators, Transformers, and Cultural Brokers.”

The first talk addressed a broad range of topics, from the growing Chinese market, to the qualities of books in demand for translation, to the challenges, channels and venues through which books travel till a translation appears on the shelf and stays there for several runs. Questions around authenticity, the role of the translator as potential agent, and the translatability of national aesthetics kept the conversation lively and the ideas bouncing about.

This was followed by a discussion panel on producing and promoting illustrated children’s books, moderated by AUC professor and artist/historian/activist Bahia Shehab. On the panel representing publishers was Balsam Saad, Managing Director of Dar Al-Balsam, and with the artist’s perspective was award-winning writer and illustrator Walid Taher.

Showcasing grassroots initiatives

This was followed by a showcase of new grassroots initiatives in the field of children’s literature, accompanied by brief videos of the initiatives. The seven initiatives were: Samia Jaheen’s colloquial Egyptian oral tales project DilHekaya; Randa el Sawi’s eponymous sleeper hit audiobook channel Randa El Sawi’s bedtime stories; Hadi Badi, a collective resource for educational and literary Arabic children’s resources; Tuta-Tuta.com, a website that streams audio translations of popular foreign children books in Colloquial Egyptian Arabic by Riham Shendy; Ossass, the New York based publisher of Arabic colloquial stories by Reem Makhoul; and then Marcia was on stage again telling the audience about ArabKidLitNow! the a project dedicated to the discovery, translation, and promotion of great Arabic children’s books. Finally, Susanne Abou Ghaida presented about Mersal Magazine, a children’s literature blog with serious reviews and author/artist interviews.

Debate: Fusha vs. Ammiya

Sketch by Mohamed Wahba

As four of the initiatives were working in colloquial Arabic, predictably, the Fusha vs. Ammiya debate broke out, with writer and dubbing queen Zeinab Mobarak, award winning author Rania Amin, and Amira Aboul Magd of Dar el-Shorouk, weighing in with balanced and diverse perspectives. Samia Jaheen finally pointed out that as this circuitous discussion wore everyone down and reduced everyone’s productivity, the kids had probably gone out to buy an English book to read quietly, unaware of it all!

There were a number of questions about translations, and the competition the industry faces for children’s attention, both from foreign books and other media. Yasmine Motawy ended the day with a brief introduction to a manuscript she is currently working on with the support of the Andrew W. Mellon grant, on ideology in contemporary Egyptian children’s books.

At the networking lunch at 2 p.m., we saw Ahmed ElMahdy, the science fiction author, sharing some of his new books; and artist Mohamed Wahba sketching our keynote speaker; and Ranya Abdel Rahman from the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, who had flown in just to attend, and overheard a lot of students exclaiming how wonderful it was that Cairo had such a vibrant children’s literature scene.

With the start of so many connections and new possibilities, the challenge will be fostering them going forward.

Fatima Ahmed and Rawan Elnagar are students taking ARIC 1099: “Children’s Literature and Cultural Representations,” taught by Yasmine Motawy this Fall at AUC.



  1. For those interested in related grassroot initiatives check out حواديت الجدات (grandmothers tales) a facebook group and public resource formed in 2015 with the idea of crowdsourcing and recording oral folktales from members who can recollect what was passed them to them as kids from what is known as حواديت البيت (as opposed to folk epics told by male storytellers in coffeeshops). The group has a public archive of over 25 collected tales (though hasn’t been recently updated).


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