Adolescence, Food, and Illustrating Family History: A Talk About ‘Teta and Babcia’

No stranger to the children’s literary scene, co-founder of Hadi Badi Children & YA Lit in Arabic initiative, Miranda Beshara’s debut picture book Teta and Babcia – Kitchen Tales from Egypt, Poland, and Syria was published by al-Balsam Publishing House in 2019 and has been warmly received by those in the field as well as young first readers. Yasmine Motawy spoke to her long-time friend Miranda Beshara about the book for

Beshara currently lives in Paris with her family, and her book is a response to her adolescent daughter Farah’s questions about her roots. As Farah engages her three grandmothers, Teta Aida (her Egyptian great grandmother), Babcia Monika (her Polish maternal grandmother), and Teta Afaf (her Syrian paternal grandmother) in an oral history project, these exceptional women of Egypt open “their hearts and kitchens” to their searching granddaughter.

Yasmine Motawy: Your book is a welcome addition to a fantastic set of contemporary Egyptian works that explore family history and the self, such as The Newborn, by Nadia Kamel, El Embaby’s Path, by Muhammed Abdallah, Room 304 (or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years),by Amr Ezzat, How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts, by Iman Mersal, and the documentary Let’s Talk, by Marianne Khoury.

Your first book is autobiographical, and for children, although I and many others may argue that it is a crossover book that can be enjoyed at any age. Because of the book genre’s fluidity, I feel there is really no telling what you will do next; more autobiography or less? More children’s books or ones for a different audience?

Photograph of Miranda Beshara at her book signing at the Cairo Book Fair, courtesy of the author

Miranda Beshara: Yes, there are a lot of us swimming in the same rich sea, and I was certainly influenced by Nadia Kamel’s film project Salata Baladi when I decided to make recordings of the women in my family. While I do not know when it is that authors traditionally begin to write about themselves, the question of who I was forced itself on me when I turned 40, and I had to resolve it before I could write away from it.

Moving forward, I have a lot of ideas of where I might go next, and while nothing I plan to write is likely to be this autobiographical, I will continue to pull from threads of my own experience. I currently have ideas for a YA book, a silent book, and a picture book, all of which speak to me and fill an important topical gap in the Arabic children’s book market. The topics I tackle will largely determine the initial audience I target, but even this is liable to change when I start writing.

YM: The book that the American University in Cairo has just selected as the 2020 Common Reading Experience (CRE), Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, is also a poetic project, of a father writing to his 15-year-old son about what it means to be a Black man in the United States. It was born of the need to prepare his son for a world shaped by privilege and by the reality of racism. How did your own project develop, and how did it find its home in the picture book form? And, in making the personal public, and suitable for children: What did you discard, and what did you keep?

MB: The book started as a family documentation project that produced a great deal of audio and visual material from having recorded hours of interviews with all three grandmothers. This made the book trailerwhich Tammy Saad produced, very special. When it was all collected, I began to consider how Farah might be able to retell and preserve these stories herself, and it was then that I was encouraged by friends to make the project a book. It took me a while to find my voice, and I constantly asked myself: would Farah tell this particular anecdote? Would this be something she cared about? As she was twelve years old when the project began, I wondered what kind of things she would want to say about her grandmothers.

When I had some confidence in the text I had drafted, I began to rely heavily on sharing my work with people whose opinion I trusted, to make sure that details and stories that seemed perfectly clear or highly relevant to me, were in fact so. At that point, I showed publisher Balsam Saad the draft and she was enthusiastic about the idea of a book that is part documentation, part food memoir, part travelogue, part picture book and part middle-grade book. Working with her, in her capacity as an experienced editor, was very valuable, and our journey with the book was characterized by constant dialogue. We decided together that the text be written in Modern Standard Arabic, but I insisted on touches of colloquial dialect in the dialogue to convey the voices of these very distinct characters as they were in the audio files of the interviews.

At some point, I wondered if I needed to fictionalize the story and change the names of the characters, but I decided I wanted to honor them with this book, and therefore, to preserve their privacy, I obviously did not tell everything.

YM: Last week, I wrote about a very interesting discussionthat took place in the field of children’s literature that touched on the relationship between the author and illustrator. You worked with an illustrator who had never done children’s books before. How did you and Heba Khalifa agree on illustrations, particularly as they had a great role to play in defining the genre and audience of this very open book?

MB: Balsam sent the first chapter to several great illustrators and we patiently waited to see what they would make of it, recognizing that the illustrator would be an integral partner in defining this book. When I saw Heba’s vision, I knew right away that this was it. I had loved her visual interpretations of family and womanhood from before, this would be her first time working on a children’s book, and so she approached the project with great openness.

She made the extra effort to meet my in-laws and to spend time with my family, photographing their things and immersing herself into their lives to capture their essence. She often built stories around artefacts, turning them into complete visual narratives. For instance, the details she created around my kitchen pottery that comes from all four countries that I am connected to, and my mother-in-law’s antiquated but impeccable stove and fridge really brought their talismanic properties to life on the page.

She also helped me in my negotiations with omitting and presenting the personal to the public that you were asking about. For instance, on the page with my grandparents is a photograph of an aloe plant, which symbolizes some discord in their marriage at that point. I decided not to delve into the complexity of the characters’ marriages in general, but this marriage was initially unusual because my grandfather had been engaged to marry my grandmother’s older sister, with whom he was very much in love. She became ill and died, and he married her younger sister with a bit of a broken heart. I felt this story might have required a different book, and the stories were coming so fast and thick, as reality tends to do, that I felt it might not work in such a short work of fiction. Heba left this symbol of the story on the page, and I found it very beautiful.

YM: Projects such as these are often accused of being nostalgic for an Egypt gone by, rather than reflecting the reality of most Egyptian families, and that food is an easy and neutral cultural marker we resort to when don’t want to get political. What do you say to this?

MB: First of all: food is not shallow! Food is very complex, as are traditions around food. Like most people, food is at the center of my family gatherings, and, as such, it conjures occasions and people and memories.

Secondly, nostalgic or not, I have to say that in this story of a multicultural family, Egypt is the strong glue that binds us all together, and the strongest identity we have in our family is the Egyptian one. Say what you will, Egyptian culture has historically been a welcoming and permeable one, with a magical capacity to expand to make people feel at home. In a time where ugly polarizing discourse is on the rise, voices that highlight the diversity of Egyptians are important. I am not naive to the fact that we have probably been very lucky in belonging to a family where differences in religion and ethnicity are accepted. I know that while not everyone has this, I know of others who have been blessed in the same way, and want to show that very real experience as a possibility. I do not feel obliged to take it upon myself to depict either the mainstream or gritty realities or nothing at all as a matter of accuracy, I find that demand itself to be rather myopic.

YM:This book speaks of an attempt to connect with a girl at a very difficult age. Was it?

MB: We live in Paris, and, for the longest time, when Farah would say she was Egyptian and Syrian, the Arab children at school would not believe her, and when she began to say she was Polish, the French kids did not believe her. The need to belong fully to a group is very pressing at this age, and this project was a way to perhaps show her that identity was more complicated than that. While the book was not a magic bullet, I do feel subtle changes in her, like an increased identification with her values rather than with her identity.

It was an important exercise for me as well, because the way she asked questions of her grandmothers as we recorded brought out things I never knew, and the intergenerational interaction was really surprising. Hearing different versions of stories, as told by each of the grandmothers separately, was eye opening. It was also an occasion for me to witness some of her raw feelings that she hides so well, as is maybe natural for a girl that age.

Making the book has also allowed me to get to know these formidable women who play such key roles in my life, as women, and this has transformed my relationships with them. It is a little sad that it was only when I turned 40 that I thought to do this.

YM: This is for, so I have to ask: are there any translations in the pipeline?

MB: No plans, but I feel the book is very well suited for translation into Polish, and into French and English obviously. There is a strong established tradition of Polish children’s books that I would be honored to be part of, and I have not seen a similar book in Polish yet.

Most books that are published about Arabs living in France are focused on identity and tradition, and while I support the focalization of diversity, and amplification of these voices, I also feel the need for other books that just “are,” such as the poetic, imaginative, high-quality books that the bilingual publisher Le port a jauni produces, that focus on things such as the beauty and playfulness of the Arabic language.

YM: I have tasted the delicious food of many of the characters in this story, including yours, and you are my most generous and accurate recipe-sharing friend, but still; how did you go about collecting the recipes in your book?

MB: While my mother’s pierogi recipe is in the book, it should be said that my mother does not like to cook! She was a young rebel, and the kitchen was her mother’s domain and so she largely steered clear of it. So when she dictated the recipe to me, she also suggested that I call my cousin in Poland to verify it, as she had not made it in a while. The biggest challenge with all the grandmothers, however, was that they did not use measurements at all in the kitchen! They said things like, “a dash of this,” and “a dollop of that.” So for the next recipe, I sat down with my aunt and asked her to faithfully transcribe my grandmother’s recipe for me. I learnt the fatta recipe from my mother-in-law many years ago, so I only had to check that one with her. I had to execute all the recipes myself again in order to verify the measurements and write them down for the book. The process alarmed me a little because I wondered how these recipes would be preserved given these women’s intuitive measuring, but maybe that is another book.

Yasmine Motawy is an educator and a children and young adult literature scholar, translator, editor, and consultant. She is a senior instructor at the American University in Cairo.