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_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. 


Hits: 45

#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!


Hits: 133

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.” 


Hits: 183

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!

Hits: 292

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.

Hits: 437