Al-Ahram Weekly Online   29 January - 4 February 2004
Issue No. 675
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Books for teens

Though they make up the vast majority of its patrons, Rania Khallaf discovers the Cairo Book Fair has little to offer teenagers


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(Above) Teenagers at this year's bookfair; (Left) Covers of two books by Abdel-Tawab Youssef
n the opening of the 36th Cairo International Book Fair, dozens of teenagers hung around the corridors of the exhibition spaces or gathered spontaneously to enjoy the sun on the pavement outside.

Mohamed Ahmed and Alaa Mohamed, both 16-year-old Marj Secondary School students, had no particular book-buying plans in mind. While Ahmed enjoys browsing the innumerable educational CDs on offer, Mohamed prefers print media by religiously inclined authors like Amr Khaled. For her part Nevine Helmi, 18, is a devotee of the Egyptian Novels for Teens series of books. "Although I read books by Naguib Mahfouz and Anis Mansour, I prefer novels tailored to my age," she says. "But most of the adventure novels available this year -- the Famous Five books -- are old. Nothing new seems to be produced."

Could it be failure to meet the specific demands of teenagers like Nevine that discourages them from reading? Nagwa Sha'ban, a novelist, has an impressive home library. Yet her 18-year-old son, she says, is no avid reader. "I've tried and tried to explain how important reading is," she says. "He never listens." According to many parents, the educational system alone is responsible for their teenage children's lack of interest in reading. "They have to memorise too many texts, and then they forget all that they learn," Sha'ban goes on. "The system does not encourage initiative. All the answers are there, so why bother to go to the book shop or the public library?" Hamed Zahran, a professor of psychology at Ain Shams University, agrees: "Reading the actual text is only the first step in the reading process, which also involves analysis, criticism and application. Students are aware only of that first step, so the effort it involves seems pointless to them -- they don't see how it benefits them."

On a more technical note, Essam Farouk, a Dar Al-Shurouq salesman, believes teenagers are divided between children's books and adult titles. Many teen- specific books, he says, are too expensive: "The average price for a scientific book -- teenagers' mainstream reading -- is LE50. This is very expensive by Egyptian terms." Farouk's own 11- year-old daughter reads only children's encyclopedias and adventure stories -- a diet too eclectic to sustain mental growth at such a critical age, he believes.

The teenage reading issue acquires added urgency in the light of the fact that, according to the second annual conference of the Arab Network for Gender and Development (ANGED) -- held in Tunisia in October 2003 -- the number of Arab adolescents in the 15-19 age group is rising -- from 23 million in 1990 to 31 million in 2000, and expected to reach approximately 35 million in 2010, and 41 million by 2020. Egypt's 13 million teenagers -- the 10-19 age bracket forms one fifth of the total population -- are the largest concentration of teenagers in the country's history.

Nabil Farouk is Egypt's best-selling teenage author. Working for the Modern Arab Association, a publishing house established in the 1950s, Farouk writes four of his employers' 15 series of books: The Mission Impossible Man, The Future File, Cocktail 2000 and Spy War. The 48-year-old paperback writer made his debut with the Association in 1984. "My aim was to write for the most neglected age bracket," he says, "the priority being to attract teenagers to books. They are more likely to benefit from the information woven into an adventure story or science fiction novel than an article or an academic tome -- because the former appeals to their imagination more directly and sustains their attention."

Abdel-Tawab Youssef, winner of 2000 Bologna Book Fair award for his Life of Prophet Mohamed series -- the first of its kind to target Egyptian teenagers -- recalls the earliest attempts at writing for teenagers. It was Kamel El-Kilani and Said El-Erian, he says, who began in the 1950s, recounting the journeys of Sindbad in Sindbad magazine. With Dar Al- Ma'aref, one of Egypt's oldest publishers, Mohamed Farid Abu Hadid established a series entitled Our Sons, Youssef adds.

In the 1980s the teen publishing business gathered momentum, with Dar Al-Ma'aref alone publishing some 40 books, including three of Youssef's own, he explains. "In the last few years the business has boomed once again," Youssef goes on, "with the Suzanne Mubarak-sponsored Family Library project offering three series of teenage books ranging in price from 50 piastres and LE1." Yet even Youssef, a member of the board of this state-subsidised endeavour, admits that, largely due to the gap the 1960s and 1970s present, no real teenage library exists as yet.

Farouk, on the other hand, feels that the Family Library's dependence on material in translation -- a feature that has characterised its series for teenagers -- makes for a risky strategy. "It kills new talent, discouraging those who aspire to writing for teenagers," he says, "besides the books tend to be old-fashioned." Farouk adds that few critics recognise the existence of the teenage book as a separate genre of literary activity. Yet he agrees with Youssef that a large part of the teen publishing problem concerns the current challenges facing publishing as a whole -- the rising prices of paper and other publishing expenses.

On the other hand, paradoxically, some young writers see teen literature as their gateway to publication. Ahmed El-Ady, for one such writer, entered the milieu in 1999 through the private-sector Creators Publishing House, whose principal raison d'être was Crazy People, a series of sarcastic books for teenagers. "I worked with them in order to become a published author," the writer, whose first (adult) novel has recently appeared, explains. "But I've since thought that the best way to address teenagers is to get young writers to write for them, because young writers are far more likely to understand their problems and aspirations."

For the vast majority of teenagers, the problems nonetheless persist. "It's true that we have a school library," Nasser Ismail, an English teacher at the Ali Mubarak Secondary School -- located in the highly populated, poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Warraq -- supplies. "Teenagers are not motivated to read beyond the curriculum. They don't enjoy reading about history or religion -- popular magazines or adventure stories will do," Ismail goes on to lament. "The system treats library class as a trivial, marginal part of education -- whereas there really should be a comprehensive vision on the part of school administration to motivate teenagers to seek out and acquire knowledge of every kind."

According to a 1997 survey entitled "Adolescence and Social Change in Egypt", out of 13 million adolescents only a few thousands benefit from cultural services offered by the government. Hoda Tawfik, Pioneers Sector director at the Higher Council for Youth and Sports, notes that only 1,740 teenagers participated in cultural competitions -- including writing and translation competitions -- organised by the Council in 2003. She could not provide figures for reading tendencies among teenagers.

Noureliman Magdeddin, 17, who won last year's writing competition for a short story entitled The Snobbish Donkey, is a member of the Nasr City Youth Centre and an active participant in numerous fields. "I have a big library in my room that has over 150 books, but I still have a problem with teenagers' books," she says. "The ones that are worth reading are really rare." Nour's father has similar complaints: there are no manuals available, he says, to help parents understand the needs of this age category. "And the few that have been written are literally locked up in the drawers of educational institutions -- gathering dust."

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