04 Dec / Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya, illustrated by Susan L. Roth
Surely this deserves some sort of supreme irony award: Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s recently ousted president, was one of the leading champions of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, completed in 2002 where the greatest library of the ancient world – the original Library of Alexandria – once stood some 2300 years ago. One of the 21st century’s most corrupt despots was also a major supporter of cultural enlightenment and intellectual exchange. Go figure.
As Mubarak’s power came crashing down during the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, the peaceful protests-that-soon-turned-violent threatened the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. “Our Alexandria Library, built on the ashes of the ancient, famous one, is the most modern building in all of Egypt,” an unnamed narrator reports. “We could not let our Alexandria Library burn!”
“Maybe it was the noise of peaceful people, demanding freedom. But maybe the people were so angry that they would hurt each other, hurt me, or hurt our library!” Fearful of what could happen, the library’s director, Dr. Ismail Serageldin, implored, “‘There is nothing that prevents anybody from destroying this building with all its treasures, except the will of the people.'”
The young marchers took charge, first surrounding the building, then one by one, created a human barrier by “all holding hands, protecting the library.” By that simple act of reaching out, “we all protected our Bibliotheca Alexandrina, once upon a time not a long time ago, [so that] the library still stands today holding all of our stories.” Library director Serageldin makes clear his grateful admiration “[t]o the great youth of Egypt, the leaders of the Egyptian revolution of 25 January 2011,” in an open letter on the library’s website.
Co-author Susan L. Roth seems to have been preparing to be this story’s storyteller for years before the events actually even happened: the library’s protective human barrier bears striking resemblance to Roth’s Let’s Holds Hands project which collects children’s self-portraits – “ambassador[s] of friendship,” as she calls them – from all over the world and joins them virtually. In the book’s opening spread, the blackboard behind the librarian displays a snippet of the collaged self-portraits from Roth’s empowering project, clearly a tribute to all young people everywhere who are willing to stand up, hold hands, and make change happen together.
Get inspired: take the hand of your own “ambassador of friendship” and go enjoy (and protect) your own libraries (and librarians!) everywhere.