As I prepared to meet the veteran writer Yacoub al-Sharouni, I asked myself what could I say to a person who had authored more than 400 books for children, many of which had been translated into English, French, German and Italian? How should I take the plunge into such a deep and profound wealth of knowledge and imagination? I felt like a small child in the company of Santa Clause, who fills children’s hearts with expectation of gifts.
I had seen Sharouni around with children, and never failed to notice his concern for the working child, the village child, and children with special needs. I had also read many of his stories: Heroes of Fayrouz Land; Secret of the Queen of Kings; Tale of Radobees; and Tales from Sharouna.
To use Sharouni lingo, there was once upon a time a little boy born in 1931 named Yacoub who, before he even learnt to read and write, was fond of books. He would ask his older sister to read to him illustrated stories in children’s books. He dreamed of the day when he could read them himself. Time passed and the little boy went on to earn a law degree from Cairo University in 1952 and higher degrees in political economics in 1955 and 1958. He worked as a lawyer with the State Court Authority but his love of storytelling got the better of him and he became a famed writer for children. His stories were read by children not only in Egypt but all over the Arab World.
In 1968, he was appointed Director General of the Egyptian Culture Ministry’s General Organisation of Culture Palaces, and travelled to France for ten months to study cultural work in the field of children’s literature. From 1984 to 1991, he was the Head of the National Centre of Child Culture and became a leading figure on Arabic children’s literature and Child Culture.
The children’s friend went on to write some 400 books for his little readers, and won numerous awards. His play Heroes of Our Country (1960) earned him the Award of the Supreme Council for Arts and Literature in Egypt, and his The Best Egyptian Folk Stories the 2002 New Horizons Award of the Bologna Book Fair. In 2005 he won the distinction award in the Suzanne Mubarak contest for children literature for his three works Tale of Radobees, Hassan’s Dreams, and The Enchanted Mare.
He was keen to pass on his knowledge to others and enrich his beloved children’s literature; he supervised several theses and dissertation projects in that field.
• We would like to know whence came the wealth of lofty values that feature in your works.
I come from a family with diverse interests. I write short stories for children, my older brother Youssef also writes short stories as well as pieces that may be used to teach adults literacy, and my young brother, Sobhi, is a professor at the Faculty of Fine Arts. My late sister, Mufida, was a music teacher and we always had a piano at home. Of my other two brothers, one, Mufid, is an electronics expert, and my late brother Shukry, was the owner of the biggest factory for children’s apparel in Egypt. No doubt such diversity affords rich sources for a plethora of ideas.
Besides, I love to travel inside and outside Egypt. Wherever I go, I learn more and more about places and people.
I am also active with civil associations that directly deal with the marginalised sectors in our community, such as those who live in the many slums and the poor in towns and villages.
Plus, I have a mega rich library which provides me with a wealth of knowledge. And I am keen to follow international children’s book fairs and seminars.
• Was there a book you read as a child that left a lasting impression on you?
It was the 1940s’ biography of Marie Curie, written by her daughter and translated into Arabic by Ahmed al-Sawi, the former editor-in-chief of Al-Ahram, under the title The Immortal Student. This was a first-class book, combining creativity, scientific knowledge and human emotions.
• Why is the village of Sharouna so dear to you?
I was born in Cairo, but I used to spend my holidays at my grandfather’s house in the village of Sharouna in Maghagha, Minya, Upper Egypt, some 250km south of Cairo. He was the only person in the village who owned a library and the only one to read the daily paper Al-Ahram. His friends and neighbours would gather in his house to learn the latest news.
I absolutely enjoyed my time there. I used to observe the villagers’ activities, and these are still vivid in my mind. Watering the donkey from the Nile, wheat threshing, children playing on the alleys, and much more that came to form rich memories. Twice I was there during the annual Nile flood season. This is today history; the Aswan High Dam built in the 1960s keeps the flood waters stored behind it and they no longer inundate the land.
I wrote six stories about Sharouna, including Mystery of the Weird Disappearance for which I was awarded the Best Writer for Children prize for 1981.
• Tell us about your experience in journalism.
This was during my final year in the Faculty of Law, when I joined a number of my colleagues to publish a magazine which we called al-Ragaa’ (Hope). I used that new magazine to express my respect for women.
This was not the first experience, though; the first was when I was 14 and editor of the English-language school magazine at my school.
• Can literature contribute to solving the problem of homeless children?
I have already written many stories about homeless children. One of them, under the title It is Best That I Am Free, is about a homeless girl. The idea was inspired by my meeting with homeless children at a day care centre run by an association which offers them a meal and a few educational activities.
The story shows that homeless children prefer the cruelty of the street to the inhumane treatment they suffer at home. They are the victims of horrible conditions which stem mainly from poverty. I wish the State would help poor families just for the sake of the children.
I am against the idea of establishing a ‘village’ for homeless children, simply because they might run away from maltreatment by poorly informed, inexperienced supervisors or administrators who might not be able to foster love, patience and good cheer.
• With so many families struggling to make ends meet, do you think reading has become a luxury parents can ill afford for their children?
Sadly, this is true. Books—unlike food and schooling, for instance—are among the stuff that can wait. The main source of children’s books is the library, whether school or public libraries. Difficult economic conditions stand in the way of enriching libraries with newly published books. And because of the high cost of living, many parents are unable to buy books for their children. This has led most publishing houses to minimise, some even halted, publication of new books for children.
• What do you think of the exploitation of children’s literature to propagandise ideas or ideologies?
When this happens, the literary work loses the most important feature of real artistic creation. All aspects of art should be loyal to human values and free expression. If art is abused for any purpose other than creativity, the little reader instinctively spots it and finds little attraction in it.
• In your story A Flower’s Adventure With A Tree, was it your purpose to convey a message to officials to respect children’s opinion in all matters that concern or affect them?
Yes, and this is not only my personal opinion. The Convention of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations in 1989 stipulates children’s rights to the freedom to express their opinion and gives them the right to form associations. Egypt was among the first countries that signed that convention.
• Do you think that today’s children, for whom the entire world lies a mouse-click away, are more mature than the children of past generations?
No, they are not more mature. Rather, they are more aware and better informed. But exploring cyberspace is sometimes done with no purpose, just to waste time.
I think Egyptian children need to go back to magazines, but many of these have become monthlies instead of weeklies. Children also need vibrant cultural activities such as contests to stimulate their talents and to encourage them to interact with their community.
27 November 2023