‘A Year in Qena’: What You Don’t Know About the Egyptian Countryside…

Egyptian writer Hadil Ghoneim’s A Year in Qena was one of five books on a shortlist for this year’s Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, in the Young Adult category, the winner of which will be announced this morning. The EBBY’s Yasmine Motawy reviews Ghoneim’s novel, and ArabLit talks with Ghoneim about her book, the writing process, and the future of Arabic MG and YA:

By Yasmine Motawy 

20695550One Year in Qena is an intelligent, humorous, and delightful journal whose chapters are paced according to the Coptic calendar used to calculate agricultural seasons in Egypt. For a year, the reader is thrown together with the 13 year old urban writer into a world ruled by the seasons and the mindset of an agricultural society.

Our protagonist joins his family for a year in Qena to care for his ageing grandmother, fully equipped with his anti-boredom kit that he relies on to avoid engaging with his surroundings. He first collides with them by trying to cleverly find solutions to the people’s problems, but is quickly humbled by the understanding that they have dealt with every contingency before and that the modern solutions they have sometimes shunned do not come from stubborn ignorance but from a deeper understanding of the nature of their problems. From awkward collision to happy collusion, the boy learns to find ways to engage with the agricultural, social, culinary and cultural life of this Upper Egyptian village as he tries to make friends, prove his worth to his family, stay connected with Cairo and ultimately grow up.

Yasser Gueissa’s  sleek line drawings discreetly illustrate concepts urban children may not be familiar such as the adobe cemeteries of Upper Egypt, the hibiscus flower, and irrigation equipment. The illustrations culminate into the spectacular ‘Mulid’ festivity scenes towards the end of the book.

This charming story is a crossover book to be experienced in all sorts of combinations; read with small children, read by young readers, or even adults nostalgic for an Upper Egypt they wish they knew better.

ArabLit: Why a boy narrator?

Hadil Ghoneim: I didn’t think too much before making that choice, but as I started writing with his voice that first page, I got into it (or him) and it was working for me. In retrospect I might say it was a practical choice because if the narrator were a girl, the challenge of being an urban modern girl transplanted to a rural Upper Egyptian society would have overshadowed all the other challenges in this experience and it would have been the main struggle in the book. In fact, having a boy as the central narrator allowed me to display several types of female influence surrounding him (mother, grandmother, uncle’s wife, sister and his love interest) without being trapped indoors with them all the time.

I also enjoyed the freedom of building a male character that I like and that both males and females would relate to. I don’t think that being sensitive, tender or bookish are feminine characteristics, and he is like that (besides enjoying soccer and video games). The different cultural perception of masculinity in Qena causes him anxiety and he admits his fears in the privacy of his diary, and perhaps that is why he develops sympathy towards his younger sister when he notices how much less freedom she enjoys outdoors compared to him and compared to her activities in Cairo.

AL: Why Qena? How did the idea come about?

HG: Because it almost rhymes with “sana”?! No, I chose Qena because I have a close friend and relative from there who is also in the agricultural business. I spoke to him a few times during the research period and even midway through the story to make sure things remained believable and realistic.

But the idea of a book came up from a conversation I was having with my friend Ehaab Abdou about the Coptic calendar and the folk proverbs connected to it. Ehaab is very keen on promoting and recognizing the diversity in Egypt’s cultural heritage and he set up a foundation to do just that (Ana Masry). He asked me to join in creating a series of books for children and we agreed I would write the first title and then we invite other writers to contribute more.

At first I thought I would put together a small non fiction book for six year olds about the ancient Egyptian calendar months and that would be it. But then when I saw how it was (and partially still is) connected with agricultural practices it clicked with another passion that I was just beginning to discover at the time, and that is gardening and growing food. And just like this boy, I’ve always lived in Cairo and have no experience of farm life in rural Egypt. “Sana fi Qena” is a journey that I wish had happened to me.

AL: I don’t think I’d call this “young adult” literature, but “middle grade,” (for 8- to 12-year-olds), I guess because the prejudice in US markets is that “kids won’t read about kids younger than them.” How do you see it? Who were you imagining as you wrote?

HG: The only thing I was imagining was the 13 year old boy writing it. I bound myself only by the condition that what he observes or cares about and the language he is using remains as true as possible to his age. Whether younger or older kids would read it, is really up to what they would find interesting.

AL: Do you know how the book will be distributed? Will you do any school visits to talk about it? Readings? How does it get from Balsam’s shop into children’s hands?

HG: Balsam is the publisher of the book and is selling it not only through the Balsam bookstore but through other booksellers as well. Ana Masry foundation bought a thousand copies and plan to distribute those copies through networks of charity organizations that work in poor or faraway places around the country.

I haven’t been to Egypt since the book came out last January, but I hope to meet readers and plan visits next summer.

AL: It seems more gentle (less snarky, less mean, fewer catastrophes) than English-language “journal” books that come to mind for the same age group, like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, which was popular both in the US and in Egypt. Do you think Arabic books for young people live in a gentler space? Why?

HG: This particular boy was gentle and sensitive, and I think he had to be like that in order to be able to notice nature and the changes in the weather and the seasons. It affected his mood and his journal entries. But I think his friend Mina would have been the snarky type. As for catastrophes, he had plenty happening to him and his family throughout the year.

I cannot generalize about Arabic books for young people, since we don’t have that many and I haven’t been following the new releases as closely as I used to. But I think Rania Amin’s “Farhana” and Walid Taher’s“Fizo” are snarky and funny. And perhaps the use of Standard Modern Arabic language as opposed to the spoken dialects has a limiting effect in that respect too.

AL: An outsider comes to Qena (and at moments he seems like a US AID representative). The “fish out of water” narrator helps the outsider-reader get inside Qena. But how does the book read to a child from Qena? Do you know?

HG: It’s funny that you say that.  The boy is certainly an outsider coming from the middle classes of the capital city of Egypt and he does carry some of the stereotypes and prejudices that Western outsiders ( e.g. US AID representatives) might have towards rural Upper Egyptians such as backwardness and rigidity. In addition to a little conceit in assuming that he knows of better solutions to their problems than they do. I am hoping that reading about the errors he made (e.g. about the the tractor vs. the cow plough), would make readers both inside and outside Upper Egypt rethink their assumptions about development and modernization.

I sent out a draft of the book to several friends who are from Qena and Upper Egypt, and they recieved it very well and I addressed all their comments. However, they were all grown ups. I haven’t had feedback from a young reader from Qena, but I’m looking forward to that.

AL: This reminded me in some ways of Afaf Tobbala’s al-Bayt w al-Nakhla. What books for young people do you enjoy? Which (in any language) might you consider a model?

HG: Unfortunately, I haven’t read that one. Growing up I used to enjoy the Moghamereen ElKhamsa adventures by Mahmoud Salem (he made them travel all over), and the Shayateen 13 series by him too. In English, I liked Beverly Cleary’s Ramona and Pippi Longstocking. I read all the Little House books by Laura Ingalls with great passion, and at one point as a kid I declared The Secret Garden to be my favorite book. But it’s A A Milne who I still enjoy reading now as a grown up. (I have to re-read The Boxcar Children because that was a one-time favorite too).

AL: How do you balance the “educational” with the “literary” aspects of the book? Did you see it as primarily an educational or an entertainment project?

HG: I think that any good literary work is, in a way, both educating and entertaining. And in general if you want kids to learn anything it better be entertaining.  The other two books I wrote for this age group were non-fiction biographies, and they were heavy on the research and the informational aspect. That is why I enjoyed writing Sana fi Qena so much, planning  only the base of a story and then letting it flow was an exciting experience. Even though I purposely made it convey certain points or information along the way. But I cannot judge for myself whether it comes across to readers as more educational or more literary.

AL: There has been a new surge in Arabic books for young people, just in the last few years. Do you see a future where they become a popular genre, and there are bestsellers among Arabic MG and YA novels? What will it take to make that happen?  

HG: The “alghaz” genre or the paperback mysteries and science fiction series were always bestselling among older children and young adult readers. In fact, given the demographics of the Arabic speaking countries, young adult readers probably comprise the majority of readers even for adult fiction. Especially now that there is a more younger generation of novelists being published.

For a specialized market to emerge for MG novels the way it is in the US for example, I think schools have to be more involved in the process of extra curricular reading. Adapting some of these children’s novels and characters into television shows and movies would also popularize the genre and bring more attention to books.

AL: I would say there is more “politics” (like for instance at the end) than I remember finding in English-language books for the same age. There also are in for instance Faten or Sit al-Koll. Do you think Arab children have more of an interest in politics than American/UK kids?

HG: Arab children are seeing more political conflict interrupting their daily lives, and maybe that makes them more interested in politics, or more averse and fed up with politics. I don’t know. But what is interesting in this comparison, is that American/UK kids get more practical understanding of politics as citizenship than Arab kids. They are introduced early on to politics as a process that runs their schools and activities and makes things happen, and they are allowed involvement in this process.

This is what was happening at the end of the book, when Mina was telling our narrator that in order to build their dream town in Qena, they have to understand “politics.” As for political tension, there was a little of that too when he was forbidden by his family to go to the Coptic moulid in Assyut.

I think discussing or just acknowledging political tensions in children’s books depends on the level of comfort that grown ups in each society feel in talking about politics, religion, and sex with their kids. US racial issues come to mind, would American kids be interested in books that touch upon these issues? Would writers or  parents be comfortable discussing them? I think it’s essential to discuss difficult subjects, but also essential to be very careful and tactful when doing so.

AL: What did you learn in writing this that you might apply to your next book? What have you learned from the reactions of readers? Are you writing a next book?

HG: I’m still learning! I wish there were Arabic magazines that reviewed children’s books. Or even a place where you can read reviews and feedback from  teachers, librarians and parents. Until this happens, I will keep keep looking out for feedback.

I am writing. But it hasn’t taken shape yet. It might not be for children at all.

AL: How will you know if this book has been a “success,” whatever that means to you?

HG: I guess it’s a combination of positive reviews and sales. It didn’t hurt at all to be shortlisted for the Etisalat Award. In fact, we were all thrilled and I’m grateful because it’s given me motivation to continue with writing. Recently, a mom told me that her kids loved the book and now “can’t wait to spend a year in the countryside”. That felt like success to me.