Guileless parables, hearty laughter and unselfconscious praise
Al-Ahram Weekly January 10-16 2002
"Unbelievable!" The little, unassuming man at the door gestures
wildly, expressing genuine incredulity. "A journalist on time? I never thought it possible." Easygoing and always with open
arms, so to speak, he is also remarkably abrupt; and for a while it is hard to believe that this is the sedate, almost universally
acknowledged authority on children's literature I have come to meet. He has greying hair and a slightly plodding gait, and is the very image of insouciance as he ushers me into this typical middle-class household. "I won't accept it," he goes on humourously. "Journalists are not supposed to be on time."
Abdel-Tawwab Youssef thus introduces me to his daughter, a professor of English literature who, he says, persuaded him of the significance of Al-Ahram Weekly's Profile page "when she saw I wasn't too eager about it." There is nothing remotely apologetic about his tone as he says this. "Of course, I have given over 200 interviews in the past two decades alone. So you can be as provocative as you want. Ask anything, suggest whatever; chances are I've already encountered something like it." And suddenly, so early on in our conversation, Youssef's most outstanding trait becomes apparent: here is a man who is utterly without guile, a perfectly unselfconscious man ready to talk about himself. "It is strange, you know, this business of interviews. Around Christmas time a journalist from the US came all the way to Cairo to conduct an interview with me, a very important personage, I am told. When she arrived,
unfortunately, I was in Bogota, Colombia, receiving an award. By the time I returned, understandably enough, she had left the country..."
Abdel-Tawwab Youssef is a widely celebrated name -- a statement to which headlines from the local and regional press will readily bear testimony: "Prince Sultan Bin Abdel-Aziz presents the King Faisal prize to Abdel-Tawwab Youssef;" "Bologna international book fair gives award to Abdel-Tawwab Youssef;" "America reads Abdel-Tawwab Youssef's Dar Al-Shaab stories for children." A small sample, this: the magnitude of the praise this writer has received is astounding; so is the number of books he has written. At the entrance to his apartment, moreover, there is large cabinet full of medals and trophies, stored haphazardly in their velvet cases. "I have been elected to the board of the Writers Union for eight consecutive years," Youssef is eager to point out. "I was honoured with the State Incentive Award in 1975, the State Award for Children's Culture in 1981 and the award of the International Council for Children's books in 2000. Everywhere I go," he huffs, "they want to give me an award. Some time ago," Youssef effortlessly reverts to story-telling mode, "while receiving the King Faisal Award in Saudi Arabia [in 1990], they wanted to give me another award as well." He blinks, smiling. "Fortunately I managed to escape in time." Carelessly, Youssef touches the glass of the cabinet. "As if all this isn't enough," he declaims again. But the gleam of pride that now illuminates his eyes is unmistakable. "Let me tell you that I won't stop writing however many awards they give me." He sounds impatient. "Awards, awards..." For Youssef as much as society, however, these honours clearly remain indicative of his achievement. For a "poor man's son," as he puts it, they can only be a vindication.
'Like any fallah, I wake up at four am, I work till nine, and, though I sleep relatively early, the rest of the day is free time. I've written a lot. So far there are 400 titles to my name. Yet every day when I wake up, I discover that I have something new to say, as if every night I had learnt a new lesson. And that lesson becomes another story as I pick up the pen, grateful to my readers -- my teachers'
In itself, Youssef's achievement, independently assessed, is vindication enough. Since his initial association with Baba Sharo, the children's radio show after which the well-known radio presenter Mohamed Mahmoud Shaaban -- Youssef's gateway into the realm of children's writing -- was named, the "godfather of children's literature" has written countless stories, plays, "children's novels," theme-oriented "serials" and literary studies. He suitably finds inspiration in the most basic topics: religious life, national consciousness and current affairs: subjects that his experience with children allows him effectively to "simplify and elucidate." Two days after 11 September, for example, he had already supplied the radio with two scripts dealing with the event; and one of his most recent works centres on the Toshka project. He has produced poetic selections for children from the works of Ahmed Shawqi, Kamel Kilani, Ma'rouf Al- Rasafi as well as the lesser known Mohamed El- Harrawi. And works like Arab Pioneers and Western Scientists in a Strange Encounter bear testimony to the extensive research he undertakes: "I've always read very widely. Other than my everyday reading for pleasure, there is always reading associated with the project at hand. Atlases, dictionaries and encyclopaedias are all consulted in the hope of gleaning knowledge." The aforementioned book, for example, comprises a series of fairy-tale meetings between the major figures of Arab learning and their counterparts in the West: Al-Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham and Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilei and Ibn Younes Al- Misri, Abbas Ibn Fernas and the Wright Brothers... Through their conversations and interactions, a wealth of scientific knowledge is revealed in language accessible to children. Nationally inspired radio scripts by Youssef, too, have developed a reputation for being "stained with the tears of the child actors," who are so deeply moved by them.
Youssef's "Islamic methodology of children's writing" exemplifies a pattern into which most of his work will fit. "In our house, while I was growing up, there were only religious books. Although I read them all, my passion for reading having developed early on, I didn't tackle religious topics until a decade after I started writing for children, largely for fear of blundering into something that might offend the sensibility of the religious authorities." He had been asked to write a story about the Prophet's mulid: reading through Mohamed Hussein Heikal's famous Hayat Mohamed, he stopped at the episode of Abraha's elephant. "And I thought of recounting the Prophet's birth from the viewpoint of the elephant [who arrived in Mecca in the same year]. It worked. In the same way other, similarly far- fetched versions of the Prophet's birth emerged; they were collected in [Youssef's own] Hayat Mohamed. And despite my fear of offending the authorities," he concludes happily, "the book became part of the national curriculum and seven million copies were printed. I had discovered a mode of operation, and unlike the religious writing for children that preceded my books, which was merely abridged history of Islam, mine involved genuine storytelling. In confirming the children's faith and their love of the Qur'an, one has to be inventive, to identify the simplest and most interesting facts and tales, reworking them effectively." One of a series of books entitled "Pinnacles and values," dealing with major Islamic figures and the values they represent, for example, the Imam Ali Ibn Abi Taleb, in his childhood, demonstrates "what courage really is" through a simple act of selfless love with which any child can readily identify: by occupying the Prophet's sleeping quarters, he helps the Prophet escape an assassination attempt in disguise.
That he begins our conversation with an account of his children's careers is a telling sign; little people are paramount, though the ones in question are no longer little. "Lubna here," Youssef begins, "is a professor of literature at Cairo University. Hisham is a diplomat. Essam, the eldest, also a Faculty of Arts graduate, is a businessman." He expands, I let the conversation flow in the direction of his choice and, sure enough, next comes his own childhood: "I was born in a village at the edge of the Western desert, near Beni Suef: Shenra. A very Western name, isn't it? My father was a schoolmaster, my mother an illiterate housewife. I was her firstborn. She left for Beni Suef only 40 days after I was born, and gave birth to three daughters in the following years." As a schoolboy, Youssef had his first encounter with children's books in the figure of Mustafa Mohamed Ibrahim, a local writer associated with the school Youssef attended: "He wrote a story every week, and the stories were published at the Bookshop of 'Amm Girgis, where I would make the transaction silently every week... I played everything at school, excelled at all the extracurricular activities." During a period dominated chiefly by chess, Youssef saw an older rival "writing down the game," and he thus discovered that "there is nothing, not even chess, that doesn't have a book to go with it." He began to write journalism, in Rose El-Youssefand eventually in daily papers, as a political science student at Cairo University: "My only aim was to earn a degree so that I could get a well-paid job, but as soon as I graduated my father died and it was a terrible blow. From then on I had to provide single-handedly for my mother and sisters."
Back at the village, his uncles insisted that the female members of the family should stay home, but Youssef was equally stubborn. "They moved in with me here and I began to work hard, independently. I provided for the family until my two sisters were married, then I got married in 1956. My wife, then a university student, was working part-time as an editorial secretary, then managing editor and finally editor-in-chief of Samir [the popular children's magazine]; she too would receive the State Incentive Award in 1978... So I worked in journalism until one day Saleh Gawdat said to me, 'You can't go on doing this, you must join us at the radio.' And he put me in contact with Baba Sharo, who, on seeing my first attempt at a script for children, made me rewrite it seven or eight times before he finally accepted it; my second attempt, though, went through without the slightest modification. I wrote intensively for the radio, exclusively until Anis Mansour launched a campaign against me in the papers claiming that, with no books to my name, I couldn't justifiably call myself a writer. And I published my first book, with the help of Soheir El-Qalamawi, in response. In 1968 I founded the Children's Culture Association, though I didn't really specialise in children's writing until 1975." How, and why, specialise? Youssef was among a group of writers who called themselves the Egyptian Literary Association; the group included, among others, poet Salah Abdel-Sabour ("Egypt's Eliot") and critic Ezzeddin Ismail. "We all experimented with various forms until each found his calling. Salah, you'll be surprised to know, started off with a book for children; before he passed away he told me that book brought in more money than all of his poetry books combined. We were serious young men: every member of this group, without exception, lived to receive a state award."
As for the "why," it seems to have been a matter of self-realisation. "We were searching for ourselves and, in specialising, we achieved a sense of contentment. Only in retrospect does it become clear that I must have loved children very deeply, so much so that before I had any of my own I would borrow the neighbours' children for Eid. And the child in me," here Youssef, unselfconscious as ever, is touching on the most fundamental aspect of his character, his childlike nonchalance, "has never died. I throw tantrums in public just like any child," he digresses. "As a child, moreover, I read a lot of children's books. And though I spent only my summer vacations there, the village shaped my character far more than Beni Suef or Cairo: its purity and innocence. I am still friends with my children's friends, and my grandchildren, now 10 and 12, have taught me everything all over again, just by observing them grow up. Though I have never taught at schools I've met with children in schools, camps, cultural palaces. I speak to them, I ask them questions, they ask me things like 'Does the monkey know it's a monkey?' and we undertake various forms of interaction. I know them well. And they invariably teach me at least as much as I can teach them."
He also knows their books: "When we specialised, you see, each of us undertook a thorough investigation of his area of interest. It is not for nothing that the children's books librarian at the Library of Congress told me, in 1983, 'You know more about children's books than anybody else in the world.' And I was told this the world over, again and again, everywhere I went." Youssef adjusts his position on the sofa; he is perfectly at ease with himself. "I keep up with the news," he laughs, "and when an item captures my attention, I immediately start thinking how to formulate it in a moving way -- in a way that captures my teachers' interest."