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

All the world knows John F. Kennedy and probably Robert and Edward Kennedy. But what about their sisters Eunice, Jean and Rosemary? Their worldwide impact on people with disabilities - especially intellectual disabilities - has been immeasurable and it is worth taking note during this month when we celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 40th anniversary of VSA: Very Special Arts.


Rosemary Kennedy was the first daughter born to Joseph and Rose Kennedy. Although her intellectual disabilities were hidden for many years because of the stigma attached to such conditions, Rosemary inspired her sisters Eunice and Jean to open the doors wide for others with disabilities.  Eunice Kennedy Shriver started a summer camp in her backyard that grew into Special Olympics, with the first summer games for children and adults with intellectual disabilities held in Chicago in 1968. This week, more than 6,500 athletes from 165 countries are competing in 25 sports in the Special Olympics World Games in Los Angeles. 

"Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me brave in the attempt."

Special Olympics Motto

Egypt has 68 athletes participating in 12 of those sports, including boccia, athletics, aquatics, equestrian, bowling, basketball, handball, football, table tennis, tennis, powerlifting and badminton. In Egypt, Al Ahram covered news of the delegation; in the United States for the first time ever, the major sports network ESPN is offering daily television coverage. There are also delegations from United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Afghanistan.

Terrell LimerickHere in Montgomery County, Maryland, outside Washington, D.C., we are especially watching Terrell Limerick, who is scheduled to become the first American to sail in the highest level 5 solo competition. We also know Terrell from the ArtStream stage, a local inclusive theatre company.  Inclusive companies, communities and organizations focus on abilities, not disabilities, saying to people with physical or mental challenges, “You are welcome here!” 

The ADA, signed in 1990, helps make this possible by prohibiting discrimination and ensuring equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in employment, State and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, and transportation. 


Children-with-disabilities.jpgThe Bibliotheca Alexandrina strives to promote social inclusion of children with special needs, writing in a brochure about its programs that “Our goal is to develop their skills, improve their living conditions and to raise public awareness and tolerance of their special needs through provision of services to the children and their families. Hardware, software and other resources that support the appropriate needs of the children with different types of disabilities are available at the children’s and young people’s libraries.” 

In 1974 another Kennedy sister - Jean - started Very Special Arts, now known simply as VSA, with 4 goals:

1) Every young person with a disability deserves access to high quality arts learning experiences.

2) All artists in schools and art educators should be prepared to include students with disabilities in their instruction.

3) All children, youth, and adults with disabilities should have complete access to cultural facilities and activities.

4) All individuals with disabilities who aspire to careers in the arts should have the opportunity to develop appropriate skills.

On July 26, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. hosted a celebration of the Americans with Disabilities Act and VSA that defied stereotypes and expectations.  Young blind pianist Justin Kauflin performed a jazz solo while his service dog sat quietly next to the piano.  Niv Ashkenazi played the violin from his wheelchair.  J.P. Illarramendi, a young actor with Down Syndrome,  eagerly said that he had “never once been afraid of being in front of an audience.” Jeff Rosen, the deaf chairman of the National Council on Disability said he was not “disadvantaged by my body, but by the opinions and oppression of others.”  Palestinian-American comedian Maysoon Zayid, who has cerebral palsy, quipped that “Taylor Swift shakes voluntarily, I do it involuntarily,” agreeing with Rosen that “access is one barrier, discrimination is even bigger.”  

Tear down the walls of exclusion. Follow in the huge footsteps of Rosemary, Eunice and Jean Kennedy. The next step is to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities.  So far, 143 countries have ratified the Convention - including Egypt back in 2008.  Unfortunately, even though the United States has a long list of inclusive opportunities, it has still not ratified the Convention - despite many strong advocacy groups.  Twenty-five years after the Americans with Disabilities Act, we have accomplished a lot - and we have a long way to go.  

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b2ap3_thumbnail_Shubbak.jpgShubbak (meaning “window” in Arabic) is about to open in London – July 11 – 25, 2015. The city’s largest biennial festival of Arab culture was founded in 2011 by the Mayor of London. The 2013 event presented more than 55 events across 42 venues, attracting an audience of more than 50,000 people.

Egypt will be well represented in this year’s festival. Andeel, co-founder of Egypt’s comic magazine Tok-Tok and political cartoonist Tarek Shahin will join a panel on graphic novels. There are performances by Egyptian jazz-rock fusion band Massar Egbari and a performance of The Tree Climber  by Tawfik Al Hakeem, just to name a few.  An Eid festival on Trafalgar Square will celebrate the end of Ramadan on July 25. 

Catalogue edited by Jennifer HeathRight in the midst of all the attention to Arab culture will be a small, dynamic and thought-provoking exhibit at the P21 Gallery: The Map is Not the Territory. Thirty-nine artists, mostly Palestinian, Native American and Irish, look at the relationships and common themes in the Palestinian, Native American, and Irish experiences of invasion, occupation and colonization. “It is a smart show that illustrates how we cannot achieve change unless we understand history,” says curator Jennifer Heath, who writes widely on the Middle East and Afghanistan and conceived the novel premise behind this exhibit.  Co-curator Dagmar Painter previously hosted the exhibit at the Jerusalem Fund Gallery Al Quds in Washington. 

 In the words of the curators, the artists’ “images in the exhibit are details of a larger picture that stands for all who have suffered everywhere – and will one day triumph.”   The exhibit is deeply creative and provocative. Although it can also be troubling and confounding, there is strength and perhaps even hope in realizing a shared experience across disparate cultures and times.

The exhibit is grouped around themes:

  • Conflict/resistance – “slaughter is often met with slaughter”
  • Land/food – “Palestinians, Native Americans and Irish share a deep reverence for the land”
  • Overlay/identity – “American Indians are the Palestinians of the United States, and the Palestinians are the American Indians of the Middle East,” (Russell Means, 2009)
  • Words/persistence – “Our stories are anchors that teach us to remember, to endure, to act courageously, to look adversity in the eye and maintain our faith that justice must and can prevail.”
  • Home/diaspora – “Where we love is home – home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts.” (Oliver Wendell Holmes)

Beit-Salaam by Helen Zughaib, 2013; archival pigment printWashington Post reviewer Mark Jenkins called “Beit/Salaam” by Helen Zughaib “a gentle mantra for a show that’s more often bristling.” Tiny Arabic calligraphy repeats the words "Beit/Salaam" - "Peace/Home" in seemingly endless circles. "Circling round and round, as if in meditation, calling Peace/Home, Home/Peace," writes the artist.  A Palestinian viewer told the artists, “Your artwork brings us closer to God.” 

Mary Tuma, Lingering Presence, 2013, Mixed MediaMary Tuma was born to a mother of Irish descent and a Palestinian father. She studied art in Kerdassa, Egypt, and says of her "Lingering Presence" image above: "We are part of the fabric of the place, sewn in layers, patched, and rewoven...We will always be home, even as we long for home."

Curator Dagmar Painter quoted Palestinian intellectual Edward Said who said, “Let the power of culture triumph over the culture of power.” Painter added that the artists in this exhibit “tapped into their deepest feelings about loss of identity, of home, sometimes even of life, and created powerful art that will triumph over the culture of power…”

You can see many of the images online here and share your reflections below. The Map is Not the Territory will be on display in London until July 25. Beginning September 5, it will be at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge, Massachusetts. On January 22, 2016, it will open at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. A full catalogue of essays, art and poetry is now available as well. I encourage you to follow the exhibit on Facebook. 


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#DrawDisability is a global campaign to enhance awareness, especially among children, of people with disabilities. Young people are being asked to reflect on their understanding of "disability," and draw how they see people with disabilities in their community - their struggles and challenges as well as their accomplishments and successes.


The #DrawDisability campaign is a global campaign launched by the United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Education First Initiative (GEFI), in partnership with the Global Observatory for Inclusion (GLOBI) and the United Nations Global Education First Initiative Youth Advocacy Group (GEFI-YAG).  It is one small step toward realizing the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which ensures that every person with a disability fully enjoys access to such basic services as education and health care, decent jobs and civic participation.

Whatever contact you have with children - teacher, parent, librarian, summer camp counselor - encourage children to participate. Drawings may be submitted by classes or individuals at www.globi-obsevatory.org/DrawDisability or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or by post to GLOBI, Via Pietro Cossa 280/10, 10151 Torino, Italy. THE DEADLINE IS JULY 15. The drawings will be divided into two age groups - 6-11 and 12-17 years old. A final selection of artwork - based on message, creativity, technique and overall impact - will be exhibited at the United Nations General Assembly session this fall in New York.

The #DrawDisability campaign provides an opportunity for teachers, families and other youth groups to raise awareness about the capabilities of people with disabilities. A teacher's guidebook suggests activities that enable children to experience different disabilities, such as this example of youngsters with intellectual disabilities who may have a harder time learning or communicating:

b2ap3_thumbnail_Untitled.jpg            Invite two students to sit back to back. Give one student a paper with an abstract shape

            like the picture here. Give the second student a pencil and paper. The second student must draw 

            the  shape following the first student's directions.



World Braille Day at the Bibliotheca AlexandrinaAt the Taha Hussein Library for the Visually Impaired at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt, blind and sighted children compete in a variety of games on World Braille Day each year.  The BA is also leading a pilot project to develop skills and promote computer use by children with Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Throughout the United States there are more and more efforts to promote inclusion in schools and communities.  In Montgomery County, Maryland, a nonprofit organization called ArtStream puts people with autism, Down's Syndrome and other disabilities on stage in original plays and musicals. Mentors are on stage to help as needed but the goal is to build the confidence and self-expression skills of people who might never have dreamed of speaking publicly.

ArtStream Cast

One of the founders of ArtStream, Nicolette Stearns, is also guiding and collaborating with a young woman who has Down's Syndrome to write a children's picture book. Her story is a perfect example of ways to engage and include these young people in challenging and productive activities.


The American Library Association gives the annual Schneider Family Awards, honoring authors of children's and young adult books for their portrayal of the disability experience. Here are the 2015 winners.



Another organization seeking to expand the worlds of young people with disabilities Mobility International USA (MIUSA), a disability-led American nonprofit organization which empowers people with disabilities around the world through international exchange and development programs. MIUSA operates the National Clearinghouse on Disability and Exchange, funded by the U.S. Department of State, to increase participation by people with disabilities in international exchange programs. Among its many projects is WILD - Women's Institute on Leadership and Disability - a regular gathering of women with disabilities that nurtures their leadership roles in developing countries.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to write about college study abroad programs that welcome students with mental illness, providing ways for students and overseas program leaders to meet challenges as they arise. Although the number of college students with mental health issues has risen, study abroad programs are finding ways for them to be successful overseas. The article was published in NAFSA's International Educator magazine.

#DrawDisability, the Taha Hussein Library, ArtStream, MYUSA - they are all steps on the road to realizing the United Nations Convention.

Please share programs and individual stories you know about in the comments section.  Everyone can make a difference!


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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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