Hands Around The Library Author's Blog

Blog posts from Karen Leggett Abouraya and Susan L. Roth, the authors of The Hands Around The Library - Protecting Egypt's Treasured Books.

The Author's Blog

b2ap3_thumbnail_LisaAnderson.jpgLisa Anderson is eager to welcome study-abroad students back to the American University in Cairo.

The president of AUC says this is the "place where you can learn Arabic and where you can actually see how people live here...the students are in good dorms, the buses are safe, the university knows what is happening: then people really ought to be coming. “  

I had the opportunity to meet and talk with President Anderson in November. Our conversation was just published in International Educator magazine, the journal of NAFSA, the Association for International Educators. Please click here to read “Beyond the Arab Spring.” 


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In 1969, Azza Fahmy was designing covers for Egyptian government political publications. At the Cairo International Book Fair that year – yes the same one underway right now in Cairo! – she was intrigued by a book about jewelry from the Middle Ages and her life took a dramatic turn.  She apprenticed herself to a jewelry maker in Khan al-Khalili and eventually became the first lady of cultural jewelry in Egypt – translating the culture and traditions of Egypt into elegant jewelry with silver, gold and precious stones.

Fahmy continues to design the jewelry that bears her name but now it is crafted by 200 artisans who bring those designs to life in a workshop in 6 October City.  During our recent trip to Egypt when we visited the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, we also traveled to Azza Fahmy’s workshop.


Each craftsman (and they are overwhelmingly men) works at a specific task – cutting, setting stones, engraving, polishing. There are workers, apprentices and masters. A worker could choose to learn a new task but would need to start all over from the bottom.  The youngest workers are drawn from art schools, informal networks – and now from her own recently established Azza Fahmy Design Studio in old Cairo, where she counsels students, "Be original and do not imitate other people's work or trends. Create your own visualisation of the future and stay proud of your own heritage." (Cairo360)  Fahmy’s Egyptian heritage inspires her creativity – each piece reflects an ancient design – much of it pictured in her book Enchanted Jewelry of Egypt - or includes engraved verses from the Quran or memorable lines from the songs of the legendary Om Kalsoum.

The silver for Fahmy’s creations still comes from the Khan al-Khalili bazaar. It is heated and turned into thin spaghetti strands which the artisans weave into chains or carefully mold around an amethyst or emerald from India. It takes one month to make a one meter silver chain. The engraved designs and verses are drawn on the computer, printed on plastic and molded in mud before they are pressed into silver or gold. No more than 60 pieces is made from each design.


Azza Fahmy warmly greeted visitors during a recent tour of her workshop, wearing an embroidered shawl and – of course – one of her own rings and pendants. Where does she keep getting ideas? She points to her head, adding “loving my country.”

Azza Fahmy with Karen and Tharwat AbourayaA. Fahmy remembered making this necklade in 1993!

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They come by busload and one at a time, from young children to college students - lining up to enter the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA) for tours, research and reading, learning and discussing.

The Children’s Library is bright and colorful, filled with books in many languages as well as puppets for storytelling, computers and movie rooms.  The Young People’s Library - for youngsters age 12 to 16 - includes informational books but also titles popular with Western teens, like the Twilight series.

Lines of young people await entry to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina


Librarian Marwa Seifeldeen w/puppet Bakar

Accessing Facebook in the Young People's Library

Twilight in the Young People's Library

Young People's Library 

In November 2014, the Friends of the BA in Maryland/D.C./Virginia (of the Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister Cities Committee) delivered just over 200 new books to these libraries - all purchased with funds raised through the First Book Virtual Book Drive in March 2014 and the May 31 Celebration in Alexandria, Virginia. 

The First Book Global Marketplace, the international arm of the American literacy organization First Book, shipped and delivered half the books. The other half were hand-delivered in suitcases by Friends co-chairs Tharwat and Karen Leggett Abouraya. All the titles were selected by the library staff, including Sylvia Stavridi, Collection Development Coordinator for Special Libraries, and Ingi Abdelkader, Head of the Children’s Library Section. 

 BA staff Ingi Abdelkader, Sylvia Stavridi, Marwa Seifeldeen with Karen Leggett Abouraya

The First Book Global Marketplace makes deeply discounted children’s books available to organizations that meet at least one of the following criteria:

1. 70% or more of the population you work with is in-need.

2. Your organization works with disabled children.

3. Your organization works with people affected by recent natural disasters.

The BA library staff expressed interest in obtaining more audio books, DVDs and books in Arabic from both Egyptian and foreign publishers. The Friends will be looking for opportunities to assist with these requests.

Through the generosity of Hands Around the Library  artist Susan L. Roth - whose visit to the BA in 2009 inspired the book in the first place - we also delivered original art from the book to the Children’s Library and also to Dr. Ismail Serageldin. 

 BA Director Ismail Serageldin, Karen, Nadia Abouraya

One of the founders of the Baltimore Friends of the BA, Abdelwahab Elabd, is also working on developing a lending library at the BA for blind readers, similar to the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped at the Library of Congress in the United States.  The BA already has the Taha Hussein Library which uses special software to enable blind and visually handicapped readers to access books and journals. 

It was a great joy to hold hands with the BA staff who are working with such energy and passion to keep children excited about the world around them through books - we look forward to our continuing collaboration.

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Egyptian artist Nabil Makir writes on his website, “Everybody must do his part in the world. Artists cannot carry guns or be doctors, but they can express themselves with their brushes and pencils. There must be mutual understanding.”

The creative angst and hope of Egyptian as well as other Middle Eastern and American artists is on dramatic display at two exhibitions in Washington, D.C. right now – “AMEN – A Prayer for the World” and Helen Zughaib’s “Fractured Spring” at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery.   AMEN is a project of CARAVAN, an intercultural and inter-religious arts initiative to build connections between Middle East and Western populations. The AMEN exhibit has already been in Cairo and will move next month to New York City.

For the CARAVAN exhibit at Washington’s National Cathedral, Egyptian artist Reda Abdel Rahman made life-size fiberglass human forms modeled after the ancient Egyptian god Amun, each in one of four different poses of prayer. The forms were given to 30 Egyptian and 18 Western artists to decorate. Collectively, they are a stunning call to each of us to listen, reach out and connect with those we consider “other.”



About his own statue, Abdel Rahman wrote, “I imagined myself in front of Queen Hatshepsut or Queen Tiy or Nefertari. This queen is the mother of our people, and from her body extends all goodness in the form of branches giving joy and comfort and good fortune, personified by the turquoise scarabs that she bestows on everyone. She has sat down on Set, the ancient Egyptian god of evil, as a sign of her control over the circumstances and all the evil forces of political Islam, who have wronged the Egyptian civilization.


b2ap3_thumbnail_Harpform.jpgAmerican artist Amy Gray recalled buying her first harp, when its maker told her,  "' The instrument needs to be tuned every day for at least the first month, so that it will to learn that it was no longer just a bundle of wood, but a harp, something that was meant to sing.…It is in this spirit that I have made my form into a human harp to be not only “an instrument tuned for praise” but an instrument tuned for peace.”


 Egyptian Hisham El Zeiny began drilling holes into the rigid torso and then added light to give a“more meditative, contemplative aura as 'light comes from within.'"



Fractured  Spring 

Lebanese-born Helen Zughaib, an Arab American living in Washington, D.C., created a statue for the CARAVAN exhibit but filled her solo exhibit at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery with her ongoing interpretations of the Arab spring. “In the early days of the Arab Spring,” she writes, ”there seemed to be an abundance of optimism, hope and potential for change in the Arab world….three years ago, in my first painting on the Arab Spring, I used the flower as motif. I have carried that flower throughout this exhibit as well, refusing to give up, though now a bit wilted, angry, questioning and bleached of color.”


Spring Flight shows birds seeking freedom but constrained by cages, or picture frames,

many carrying a drooping blossom.


Di/as/pora may be read right to left as people flee or left to right as people return.


Peace Puzzle – can you find the English and Arabic letters that spell “peace?”

It’s up to each of us to help put the puzzle together.


The widely exhibited and highly acclaimed Zughaib, whose art has been gifted to heads of state by President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, believes the arts are one of the most important ways to help shape and foster dialogue and positive ideas about the Middle East.


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Building Egypt's Place in the World

Ismail Serageldin is optimistic about Egypt’s future in large part because of his experience as director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where the average age of the 2,400 employees is 30.  “We started with nothing and in less than eight years, these young people created an institution that is recognized among the great libraries of the world.”

The young people of Egypt stood up against the government and demanded change twice in the last three years – first against Hosni Mubarak in 2011 and then against Mohamed Morsi in 2013.  “The rebellion against Morsi was a fundamental rejection of the vision of an Islamic state,” says Dr. Serageldin, noting the important role played by women today and in the 1920s, when women openly removed their veils during an earlier demonstration in Tahrir Square.

b2ap3_thumbnail_All.jpgDr. Serageldin talked informally about the library and the state of the Egyptian revolution during a Celebration Garden Party on May 31, 2014, at the home of Ibrahim and Aida Mady, on the banks of the Potomac River in Alexandria, Virginia. More than fifty people attended the celebration organized by the Friends of the BA – DC, MD, VA, part of the Baltimore-Luxor-Alexandria Sister Cities Committee.

“The cleavages in our society are profound,” continued Dr. Serageldin. “There are those who want a modern, progressive secular state not unlike Norway. There are those who do not want anyone from the military and those who want the military to be given a forceful hand. There is general disenchantment, especially among young people because nothing has been achieved yet.”



“No revolution completed its strategic agenda and transformed society within a few years,” Dr. Serageldin reminded the audience. In the United States, the war of independence itself lasted six years, followed by the Articles of Confederation, the Constitutional Convention, the election of George Washington 13 years after the Declaration of Independence, with the Bill of Rights only ratified in 1791. 

“I keep telling my young colleagues that in Egypt we are not even four years old. We are still a toddler.”

The Road Ahead

 b2ap3_thumbnail_Serageldin.jpgDr. Serageldin outlined several key steps he believes are important on Egypt’s road ahead:


  1. “Blood has been spilled. There must be an accounting for the deaths from January 25, 2011, until now,” – perhaps even a “truth and reconciliation” commission as in South Africa. “The air must be cleared or the gap will continue to grow between young and old, male and male, Islamist and non.

  2. “The economy is a shambles,” but he is encouraged that newly elected President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has said measures taken by the government today won’t have an effect on people’s lives for at least two years. “Finally someone is willing to say the truth,” says Dr. Serageldin. “We will get the engines of the economy running, but it will take time. And my belief is that people will respond favorably when you tell them the truth.”  Again, his optimism stems from seeing the dramatic changes in places like Singapore, Taiwan and China – changes that took a generation

  3. “If the Egyptian public has successfully stopped the seemingly unstoppable tidal wave of political Islam in our part of the world they have also resurrected the specter of the centralized security state with all its problems.”  Tackling terrorism is a profound problem in every society, because the public expects the government not just to punish terrorists but prevent terrorist acts.  “In the name of preventing terrorism, governments take actions that are not so constitutional, limiting free speech until you have McCarthyism,” or the World War II concentration camps for the Japanese in the United States.  “This is a slippery slope. We have to accept pluralism and a divergence of views. Democracy requires pluralism and pluralism requires differences of opinion.”

  4. Dr. Serageldin also urges an acceptance of a broad range of views in the media and among the public.  Acknowledging that media reports may often be biased, he pointed to the very different reaction in the west to the 2013 revolution in Egypt and the 2014 revolution in Ukraine, where the “uprising was recognized as a popular movement, not a coup. But wasn’t a popularly elected leader replaced by large scale action in Ukraine just as in Egypt?”  Dr. Serageldin said that the media have a responsibility to make a fair and honest assessment, but the government should tolerate a wide range of opinions – “the only way to insure that pluralism and democracy survive.”

“We are here to help the young people on the right path,” concluded Ismail Serageldin. “They are building their future and the future of the world and Egypt’s place in it. Egypt has given so much to the world so many times throughout the centuries. Egypt will come back and give again.”


The Celebrate Egypt Garden Party launched the expansion of the Friends of the BA to Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.  If you would like to become a member and help support the Children’s Library and other projects at the BA, write to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to request a membership application.  The May 31 celebration was catered by Cooking and Beyond, which specializes in Egyptian cuisine. Ana Masry USA Band offered a concert of song and verse representing Egypt’s diverse cultural heritage.




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