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

Blocked writers and intimidated artists often complain about the daunting white pages shining, flashing, mocking, even blinding their anxious eyes as they reluctantly lift their pens and pencils, and yes, also their scissors, to meet those pristine, unsullied surfaces. It's scary!

But when I stared onto my first white page of Hands Around the Library, it was a billion times scarier than any white page I had ever encountered before. Why? Because a blank page is one thing, but competition with more than 5,000 years of an extraordinarily creative cultural and artistic history of art, one of the most highly developed, brilliant, diverse in style and in medium, prolific, universal, amazing, exquisite, spectacular, gorgeous, highly visible in art museums all over the world, as well as in the most beautiful of fine art books and history books in every language, and taught in fair depth starting in most 2nd grade classrooms all over the world, is quite another.

You think an empty page is daunting? I'll show you daunting!

And then place this unique art historical wonder of a treasure against the backdrop of the mythical memory of the greatest and most famous library that the world has ever known, juxtaposed with what is surely the second greatest library that the world has ever known. From here in New York I could only say fageddabowdit. Just the thought is enough to make one go right back to bed. Except that…

…here, at last, was the assignment that Karen Leggett Abouraya and I had been dreaming of for more than two years. And fortunately, here was a specific story to tell, one that had just happened now. I shut my eyes and forced myself to focus on the present.

The story begins in the library, in front of books on a shelf. I remembered that library, the place where I had met the beautiful and welcoming children's librarian, Shaymaa Saad, the young woman who had greeted me there in perfect English. We had spoken several times since my return from Alexandria. She was excited about this book. "I can't wait to see what you do with this project," she encouraged me. And so I thought about Shaymaa. I put roses in her cheeks. I covered her head with a reduced photo-montage of the appliquéd tent that hangs on a wall in Karen's house - the one that's an original of the printed fabric I had bought in an open market in Alexandria. I had seen variations of this pattern repeated all over Alexandria---in curtains, tablecloths, napkins, towels and even in huge tents, like Karen's, ones that were set up for celebrations, right in the middle of the busy streets.

Following along with our story, eyes still shut, I revisited the sweeping Corniche that stretches along the Mediterranean Sea well beyond the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in both directions. I recalled the greens of the palms against the blues of the skies. I remembered the wide boulevard, full of traffic, with people walking, jogging and fishing on the beach front. I conjured up a vision of this huge open space, now filled to bursting with marching and shouting people. But what would they be doing with their hands before they held hands around their library?

They'd be waving signs, of course! Hundreds of signs! I cut out a few, requested the correct calligraphy from Karen's husband, Tharwat, incorporated the Arabic, and finally I was ready to march on with the others, through the rest of the white pages still piled up on my desk.

Facts: 1- Once one starts, continuing gets easier. 2- One page leads to the next. 3-If the page before doesn't look all that bad, the courage kicks in pretty readily for the next one. 4- As the white pages dwindle down, the excitement builds. Usually, as the book progresses to the finish, I just can't wait to see what will happen next, so that hurrying along becomes almost a wind-driven compulsion, and that makes working very much easier.

Then, even by the time the crowds reached the front wall of the library building, I couldn't wait to begin incorporating those 500 alphabets into my photo-montages.

And so, I suppose one could say that, even in the face of these past 5,012 years, the rest of my story is history.

For next time: what I cut to make it happen.




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The Kirkus reviewer who gave Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books a star also coined this phrase, which elegantly captures the heart of our story. Young people in Alexandria, Egypt, in 2011 so valued the opportunities offered by their immense and glorious Library that they held hands around it during protest marches in 2011, symbolically protecting the Bibliotheca Alexandrina from anyone who might threaten either its fragile glass façade or the knowledge and freedom nurtured inside.

Library director Ismail Serageldin eloquently praised the young protesters on the Library website for demonstrating the “moral power of nonviolence.” Within days of the revolution, the Library became the place where Egyptians could gather to discuss and reflect. Within two weeks of the resignation of Hosni Mubarak as president of Egypt on February 11, 2011, the Library hosted 600 young people from Egypt and the Arab World at large to discuss active citizenship and the future of institutions, voting, elections, political parties and civil society. The proceedings were shared via Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr. “I have unlimited confidence in Egypt’s youth,” said Dr. Serageldin. “It is the dawn of a new day.”

Hands Around the Library celebrates a signature moment in the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring, when young and old, Muslim and Christian held hands to protect their cherished Library. “We are one hand!” they shouted.

We invite you to relive that moment in the words and art of our book. Contemplate the broad expanse of history from the days when the ancient Library (300 BCE to 400 CE) was a world center of learning to our own day, when libraries continue to advance knowledge and stimulate the imagination. “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert,” said Andrew Carnegie. The young protesters in Egypt believed that in their souls.

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