Yasmine Motawy, Silence Between the Waves: Egyptian Children’s Picturebooks and Contemporary Egyptian Society (Dar El Balsam, 2021).
Jadaliyya (J): How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
Yasmine Motawy (YM): In 2006, two years before I began my doctoral research, children’s literature in the Arab world underwent a serious revival as a result of the convergence of many sociopolitical factors related to publishing, prizing, and educational policy. My soon-to-be doctoral supervisor had also become involved in a new USAID backed “National Book Program for Schools.” This was a large-scale project, the explicit goal of which was “to ensure the next generations of Egyptians [would] become a nation of readers.” From what she was describing, and from what I could see, it was clear that the Egyptian children’s literary scene was experiencing a tipping point after which it would never be the same again, and I threw myself into it, wearing several hats along the way.
Children’s literature is a young academic field all over the world, but in the Arab world, until very recently, scholarship was rare, without international visibility, and with little impact on book production or the educational and cultural spheres. I was determined to change that.
Since then, my ethos has been to work in two directions: one that faces outwards and writes in English to an international scholarly and practitioner audience, and another that faces inwards towards local outreach, writes in Arabic, addresses practitioners and stakeholders in the field, and seeks to steadily impact policy.
My scholarly writing has always leaned towards drawing interdisciplinary ties between the ideas presented in children and young adult books and subjects like political agency, civic engagement, self-authorship, the shaping of the modern Muslim child’s identity, books as tools to cognitive development in moments of crisis, and books as a tool for cultural diplomacy. I have also translated about twenty children’s books into and from Arabic and co-authored an encyclopedic entry on the dynamics of the children’s literature ecosystem.
This book is my largest and most comprehensive work to date, and ties together fourteen years of researching children’s books and media, with a focus on Egypt.
J: What made you write this book?
YM: In 2008, I received an Andrew Mellon postdoctoral grant through the American University in Cairo (AUC) HUSSLabs that finally enabled me to sit down and write this book. I had known for a long time that I wanted to add an academic and accessible voice to this marginalized—but burgeoning—area of research, where literature was sporadic, uneven, and often akin to journalistic reviews.
I partially wrote the book in the belief that if this knowledge were organized, produced in Arabic within a clear academic framework, and directed effectively, it would be crucial in informing publishing, book mediating, funding, prizing, academic, and public policy practices in Egypt and the Arab world at this time of social and educational transitions.
Today, many Arab governments and publishers are working together and separately to revamp reading curricula, and address challenges around Arabic language education and heritage preservation. The production of quality children’s literature, informed by a strong critical tradition, can promote literacy, be a vehicle for socialization, and has great potential for use in equipping children with twenty-first-century critical skills. Children’s literature is also a field where women have been historically at the helm and it remains an area that empowers and enables women in professional, creative, and policy-making capacities.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
YM: Children’s books, regardless of their artistic value, are primarily tools for socialization. Therefore looking at the children’s books that are being produced at any given time and place allows us to see how state and private book producers hope to extend their hold over the future. They do this by creating content that manages the ways in which children’s drives to transform their world are channeled, as well as the very way in which they imagine utopian worlds at all.
The book analyzes key ideological trends in what I name the “new wave of Egyptian children’s picturebooks” produced between the years 2000 and 2020. In it, I ask the question: what do these books reveal about our priorities as a society and how we view childhood, both as a social construct and as our bid into the future?
The first two chapters target the reader interested in Egyptian current affairs in general; the first chapter documents, historicizes, and contextualizes this shifting moment in children’s book production, embedding it within a discussion of other key sociopolitical changes in Egypt. It also seeks to understand the reader of new wave picturebooks by describing the features of Egypt’s generation Z. This is a cohort that has been defined both by having been raised by millennials and members of generation X, but also during the 2011 revolution and pandemic control measures. The second chapter gives a sociopolitical and historical overview of the publishing ecosystem in Egypt until the present day.
In the three analytical chapters that follow, I make the argument that book producers—defined as publishers, authors, and illustrators combined—valorize certain ideological modes of interacting within domestic spheres, capitalist spaces, modes of enacting femininity, and modes of civic engagement and utopian imagining.
I open and close my book with the argument that there is no alternative to being trained in the art of listening to young people today, especially in attempting to understand the implications of the intersection of the virtual world with reality for these digital natives. I also advocate for more participatory research in academia. In Egypt, that would mean research that cuts across socioeconomic classes, reading contexts (libraries, schools, and bookstores), research outside of major urban centers, and research on digital reading.
J: Why does your book only cover picturebooks?
YM: I write about young adult literature elsewhere, as there are so many middle reader and young adult books coming out of the Arab world at the moment.
Only picturebooks are selected for this particular exploration because picturebooks are presented to the child at a cognitively and psychologically opportune time, and are therefore highly influential. Picturebooks are written, purchased, and largely read to the child by adults. Their producers deliberately cater to the nurturing parents, teachers, and librarians who subscribe to the socialization and developmental benefits of certain books, rather than the child reader. Producers cater to older readers significantly differently, seeking to hold onto them as readers and pulling them away from other competing media. This makes picturebooks highly ideological cultural artifacts that are ideal for this kind of analysis.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
YM: I wrote the book with a dual audience in mind: those working on Arabic children’s books, in the areas of education, book mediation, curriculum development, reading initiatives, and publishing, as well as engaged parents. The book is also geared to those who are interested in the humanities and wish to learn about contemporary Egypt through the multidisciplinary lens of current affairs, culture, and politics.
The reactions of readers from outside of the field have consistently been, “I have never thought about children’s literature like that, I never realized that so much went on behind the pages.” This by itself is great; that the general reader finds reason to take children’s literature seriously and see how children’s books will always be a unique window into who we are.
As an educator, I wanted the book to be highly amenable to classroom use as well; it assumes no prior knowledge in the reader, and synthesizes social science, current events, and literary criticism—making it conducive to interdisciplinary conversations amongst students.
More generally, I hope that the book invites reflections on the aesthetic sense we are building as we produce picturebooks, as these are often the first art forms children experience in their lives. I also envision that the book will cause readers to think about what we are really saying to children when we tell stories, and who the child we are addressing really is. The hope is that this attentiveness will result in higher quality books and more conscious book production processes in the Arab world. On a policy level, I imagine the second order effects of this approach to children’s book production could be more funding directed to supporting books, so that they may stay relevant in the digital age, and to supporting capacity building at all nodes of the Arabic children’s book production ecosystem.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter III: “The Institution Socializes,” pp. 91-93)
No matter how well the study of children’s books has established itself as a vibrant newcomer to the field of literature, and children’s books show themselves to be worth studying for their literary and aesthetic qualities, they are still at the end of the day a prime educational tool. Books for small children socialize them into their roles, social customs and expectations, delineate or highlight features of intergenerational and social relations, the nature of their society and its norms, and therefore foster the values and qualities that are deemed valuable. In short, they civilize the child into becoming a citizen compatible with the social context within which they are expected to operate.
Deliberate colonial educational policies offer great insights into the kinds of concerns that authoritative powers have in trying to control their interests. So in 1885, the British occupation government focused greatly on Egyptian schoolchildren and expanded the curriculum to include “durus al-ashya’, or “object lessons” which included such topics as “keeping one’s clothes clean, the use of soap, the house and all its rooms, and how to best build a house. It also included adab and tarbiyya, which consisted of lessons in basic manners, hygiene, health, clothing, and behavior in and outside the home”.
Because we would like to think that it is possible to write a children’s book that is free from any educational or socializing content, we value children’s books that are instructive wolves, disguised in entertaining or “imagination-expanding” sheep’s clothing, dismissing those works where the didacticism is apparent.
On the ground, this has been yet another trend inspired by the dichotomy created by the discourse accompanying the multiplication of schools offering foreign diplomas to cater to Egyptians returning to Egypt following the 1991 Gulf war. This dichotomy was articulated in the general attitudes and beliefs held by socially mobile parents that pitted the novel international school system against that of the national curriculum. The national curriculum was discussed in negative terms in contrast with the increasingly sought after foreign certificates; memorization-based learning vs. comprehension-based learning, didactic and socializing texts vs. texts that promote critical thinking and imagination, condescension towards children vs. respect for children’s intelligence, rigorous vs. creative forms and structures amongst other.
I do not purport to make a judgment on the extent of the truth of this dichotomy, but like all black and white propositions, this discourse seems reductive and dangerous. For instance, picturebook series Farhana by Rania Amin, that ran from 2003 to 2010, and Fizo by Walid Taher that began in 2004 are celebrated as an imaginative break from the directly instructional books that depict everyday domestic life, and they certainly did breathe new life into the field, however they are a prime example of cognitive socialization. The everyday adventures of their protagonists offer the reader, not only the acceptable psychological responses and modes of expressing their feelings, but even suggest how to feel, by giving children a vocabulary to describe undesirable feelings, thus preventing them from becoming or remaining intimidating unknown entities. The stories also sometimes enact noble feelings that the child is given a window onto and becomes encouraged to try out for him/herself. Books that emotionally socialize have been sought after extensively through translation as well as through original writing. Some notable examples are Virginia Ironside’s 1994 A Huge Bag of Worries translated and published by Dar Al-Balsam in 2005, Sohair Abaza’s 2020 Ash’ur wa ka’an (I feel as though..), as well as the following book series published by Dar Alfarouk: “Alirada” (determination), “Al silsila alalamiya lililaj bilqisa” (the international bibliotherapy series), “kayfa ata’amal ma’a” (how I deal with), and the “ma ma’na?” (what does it mean to?) series by Dar Alshorouk. The books of Aisha Rafea, Abir Mohamed Anwar, and Amani Elashmawi that are published by Nahdet Misr, as well as some of Amal Farah’s books published by Dar Shagara are also popular in this category. Certainly no newcomer to the scene, Aisha Rafea, spiritual wellness guru, and children’s author, had her Guide for Parents and Educators to Stories for 4th to 5th Graders republished by GEBO in 2018. This guidebook to the series “Be Yourself. Achieve Your Goals” is part of a moral education program by The Human Foundation, which she founded. The series aims to develop morals and connect with children around nine values she identifies as necessary for the child to have a positive image of himself and deal with his feelings (7,9 رافع). Another type of celebrated book, is that which capitalizes on the shared experience of reading the picturebook to socialize the parent as well, such as the 2018 Esma’ny (listen to me) by Amin, illustrated by Taher, that draws the attention of adults to the sense of abandonment, distracted parenting-mostly through preoccupation with cell phones- inflicts on small children. These attempts to foist positive models and texts onto children, assume that behavior and identity are the result of negotiations with various cultural texts, and as such expect that by replacing negative texts with more positive ones, they can transform social behavior altogether (Coats “Teaching the Conflict” 19-21).
Socialization through enacted scripts created by those with the ideological upper hand are not just prevalent in children’s books, but also in the influential medium of family television. Anthropologist, Lila Abu-Lughod, states that, “[television series] are both representative of the values of an influential segment of the middle class and enough subject to censorship to be in line with basic assumptions about social mobility (244).” A good example of this is the family drama Abul arousa (father of the bride), which aired with huge success on DMC, a television station aligned with State policies, and was hailed as promoting Egyptian family values, making headlines.
افتتاحية “الفصل الثالث: هو ده النظام: المؤسسة والتربية المجتمعية” (ص.ص. ٩١-٩٣)
بصرف النظر عن المكانة التي اكتسبتها دراسة كتب الأطفال في مجال الأدب وعن أهمية دراسة خصائصها الأدبية والجمالية، ما هذه الكتب في نهاية المطاف إلا أدوات تعليمية أساسية. الكتب الموجهة إلى الأطفال الصغار من شأنها تهيئتهم لأدوارهم الاجتماعية وتوقعات المجتمع منهم، كما ترسم سمات العلاقات فيما بين الأجيال والعلاقات الاجتماعية عامةً، وتعكس طبيعة المجتمع والقواعد الحاكمة له، وبذلك فهي تعزز القيم والصفات التي تُعتبر ذات قيمة في هذا المجتمع. وباختصار تُعد هذه الكتب الطفل ليصبح مواطناً متوافقاً مع سياقه الاجتماعي الذي يُتوقع منه الالتزام به والازدهار داخل إطاره.
تحليل السياسات التعليمية الاستعمارية المتعمدة توفر رؤى ثاقبة حول أنواع المخاوف التي كانت تساور القوى الحاكمة في محاولة السيطرة على مصالحهم. لذلك، في عام 1885، ركزت حكومة الاحتلال البريطاني على تلاميذ المدارس المصريين ووسعت المناهج الدراسية لتشمل: “دروس الأشياء، التي اشتملت على مواضيع مثل الحفاظ على الملابس نظيفة واستخدام الصابون، ومعرفة المنزل وجميع غرفه، وكيفية بناء منزل أفضل. كما تضمنت دروس الأدب والتربية، التي ضمت السلوكيات الأساسية، والنظافة ، والصحة، و كيفية الملبس، والسلوك داخل المنزل وخارجه” (Pollard 119).
نقدر – بوصفنا عاملين بالمجال- كتب الأطفال ذات المغزى التربوي المغلفة بالترفيه أو التي تفتح أفق الخيال أمام الطفل، ونستبعد كتب الأطفال التي تظهر فيها النزعة التعليمية المباشرة. ربما يكون ذلك لأننا نود أن نعتقد أنه من الممكن تأليف كتب للأطفال خالية من المغزى التربوي. هذا التمني المستحيل ربما استُلهم من الازدواجية التي أنتجها الخطاب المصاحب لازدياد إنشاء المدارس التي تقدم شهادات أجنبية في أوائل التسعينيات. وظهرت هذه الازدواجية في الخطاب العام وفي الاعتقادات التي اعتنقها الآباء الذين صعدوا السلم الاجتماعي، عند مقارنتهم بين النظم التعليمية الدولية والمناهج الوزارية الوطنية. وقد نوقش المنهج الوزاري في ضوء سلبي عند مقارنته بالشهادات الأجنبية التي كان نجمها يصعد حينئذ، وعقدت نقاشات حول تضادات موازية كمبدأ الحفظ مقارنة بالفهم، والنصوص التوجيهية مقارنة بالنصوص التي تعزز التفكير النقدي والخيال، والنصوص التي تستهين بعقلية الأطفال مقارنة بالنصوص التي تحترم ذكائهم وقدرتهم الإبداعية. ولا أنوي هنا تقديم حكم على مدى صحة أو دقة هذه الازدواجية، ولكن هذا الخطاب شأنه شأن جميع التضادات السطحية والخطيرة التي تنكر إمكانية تداخل الفئات والاتجاهات. فعلى سبيل المثال، يحتفي النقاد والآباء بسلسلة كتب فرحانة من تأليف رانيا أمين وسلسلة كتب فيزو من تأليف وليد طاهر، باعتبارها أعمال بديعة تكسر رتابة الكتب التعليمية المباشرة التي توجه الطفل بافعل ولا تفعل؛ حيث تصور هذه الكتب الحياة المنزلية اليومية. وقد أتت بالفعل بروح جديدة في المجال، ومع ذلك فإنها مثال واقعي على التربية العاطفية، حيث تقدم للقارئ أمثلة لردود الفعل المقبولة من حيث التوازن النفسي وسبل التعبير عن المشاعر، بل إنها تذهب إلى أن تقترح على الطفل المشاعر الصحية التي عليه أن يتحلى بها في مختلف المواقف، من خلال منحه المفردات التي يحتاجها حتى يصف بها مشاعره السلبية؛ حتى لا تدفن هذه المشاعر وتضخم بفعل تخبئتها في ظلال الخوف من المجهول. وفي بعض الأحيان تصور هذه الكتب مشاعر صادقة تفتح نافذة يطل منها الطفل عليها، بل وتشجعه على أن يجربها بنفسه. والتربية من خلال سيناريو مصور من إعداد الشخص الذي يمتلك اليد العليا أيديولوجياً لا تشيع في كتب الأطفال وحدها، ولكنها تنتشر من خلال كل المواد الإعلامية الأسرية.
إن التربية الاجتماعية من خلال النصوص التي تنتجها أصحاب اليد الأيديولوجية العليا ليست منتشرة فقط في كتب الأطفال، ولكن أيضًا في المنصة الإعلامية الأكثر تأثيراً في مصر، البرامج العائلية التلفزيونية. تقول عالمة الأنثروبولوجيا، ليلى أبو اللغد أن “[المسلسل التلفزيوني] يمثل قيم شريحة مؤثرة من الطبقة الوسطى ويخضع للرقابة ليتماشى مع الافتراضات الأساسية حول الحراك الاجتماعي” (244 Abu-Lughod). مثال جيد على ذلك هو مسلسل الدراما العائلية أبو العروسة. حقق المسلسل العائلي أبو العروسة الذي أذاعته قناة دي. إم. سي نجاحاً ساحقاً، واعتُبر مسلسلا يروج لقيم الأسرة المصرية…
Book is currently available in Arabic, published by Al-Balsam Publishing House. English edition forthcoming.