Sunday,22 October, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Sunday,22 October, 2017
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

No comic strip

Gamal Nkrumah  interviews the author of The Tomb Robber and King Tut Sarah Gauch and reviews her latest treasure

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Sarah Gauch has devised a schematic device to draw children into the magical realm of the distant past in print. Few writers of children’s books more directly address the zeitgeist of a particular historical epoch. Gauch is wary, though, of memorializing.

“I think it’s important to stress that children do continue to love and cherish children’s books. With picture books, for example, children still want to hold these books, to look at the pictures. Even with novels, I don’t see kids reading them on a Kindle, for example.” the author extrapolates.

“The obvious difference between a bound picture book and a comic book is the time it takes to produce a picture book compared to a comic book. The Tomb Robber and King Tut took many years, first for me to research and write the text, then for my editor to accept the text, then for her to choose the illustrator, for the illustrator to complete the illustrations, then for the publishing company to produce the book,” Gauch expounds.

“It may not be obvious, but it takes a huge amount of time and effort to write and illustrate a book like this. The illustrations, for example, are actual oil paintings, almost like pieces of art. A comic book, on the other hand, is a fun, funny story, usually unbound, which can be written and produced much more quickly and easily.  Often we read comic books once and then buy the next issue, more like a magazine. A picture book we read over and over.  I think you could say that a children’s book is meant to be something more lasting, whether we’re talking about the story or the product itself,” Gauch explicates.

The boy king of the Eighteenth ancient Egyptian New Kingdom dynasty had precious little in common with the tomb robber, Hassan of Gurna, a picturesque village on the West Bank of the Nile, opposite the contemporary city of Luxor, the ancient Egyptian capital city of Thebes, Waset in the ancient Egyptian tongue.

His unassuming tomb was not constructed for a King, but a lesser noble. Nevertheless, it was precisely this relative insignificance that kept it sealed over the millenniums  when other more powerful pharaohs whose ostentatious final resting places were robbed and plundered.

King Tutankhamun ascended Egypt’s throne in 1333 BC. His much maligned father, Akhenaten, “The Heretic King” was a monotheist. His son was, we presume, persuaded to return to the polytheism of his ancestor. His name was “The Living Image of Amun”.

His solid gold death mask, perhaps the most acclaimed icon of ancient Egyptian craftsmanship is testament to the ancient Egyptian goldsmith’s art. The boy king’s inner coffin was crafted in pure, solid gold. It exudes a sense of wonder at the unsurpassed workmanship of the ancient Egyptians. Tutankhamun was depicted as Osiris, Lord of the Underworld, grasping the crook and flail, the traditional symbols of royalty and kingship, in a majestic posture that reveals an astonishing attention to detail. The set of calcite Canopic chests is equally impressive.

Tutankhamun’s golden outer shrine was guarded by four godesses: Isis, Nephthys, Neit, and Selket proudly and graphically underscoring a break with his father’s monotheism. Be that as it may, Gauch does not delve too deeply into the altercations of such ancient controversies. The onus is on Gurna and the Valley of the Kings and Tutankhamun. Perhaps Akhenaten and the Amarna historical episode, or experiment with ephemeral monotheism will be the subject of a subsequent work.

Young Hassan, a peasant adolescent, pleads with his father “Baba” to work with the British Egyptologists excavating the tombs of pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings, where ancient Egyptian pharaohs were buried. Hassan’s father consented and soon the youngster was working long hours, hard days filling baskets with sand.

“’Baba, the English lord has come,’ I say, my stomach knotted as a camel rope.” The lord in question, of course, was Howard Carter.

Hassan was an inspiring affirmation of a peasant refusing to succumb to the dreary daily grind.

“The rayyis stands on a ledge, his arms across his chest, like a pharaoh. ‘Tomb robber’ he says, glowering at me. ‘Get to work’”. The rayyis, or the overseer, was suspicious of Hassan’s intentions. The enduring enticement of Tutankhamun is intricately intertwined with the personal tribulations of Hassan.

Hassan is descended from a family of tomb robbers, a “profession” practiced since time immemorial in Egypt, where the tombs of pharaohs rich with treasure were systematically looted even in antiquity.

The illustrations by Allen Garns are mesmerizing. “The day of days, the most wonderful that I have ever lived through, and certainly one whose like I can never hope to see again,” exclaimed Carter when he first set eyes on the Tutankhamun treasures.

Garns leaves the reader as spellbound as Carter. The dig’s benefactor George Herbert, the celebrated Lord Carnarvon, and Garns illustrates the “English lords” in all their splendour. Carter discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb on 26 November 1922. The Valley of the Kings is a place like no other. And, most young readers would presumably start The Tomb Robber and King Tut with only a hazy grasp of the intricacies of ancient Egyptian history.

Hassan, the tomb robber, is a figment of the author’s imagination. Yet he personifies the heroic struggle of a peasant against meaningless and boredom with agricultural drudgery. Destined to do menial chores, Hassan chose one that captivated him.  

The author, too, finds children’s fascination with books intoxicating. Yes, there is the Internet and motley distractions for kids these days. Yet, books especially the well illustrated ones, has not slackened in this day and age.

“What I guess I’d mainly like to stress here is the irreplaceable importance of story for kids. I think there will always be stories that need to be told, authors who yearn to tell them and readers who want to read them,” she contends.

Gauch demonstrates how children’s books have always been vital to the spread of novel ideas and the result is a spectacle that conveys the thrill of discovery and the delicious delirium of wandering young minds.  

This book is at its best in conveying concepts of enrapturing, bewitching realms of the past in a specific cultural context. “I, for example, have always been fascinated by Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb. I’ve marveled over those old black-and-white photos of the tomb the day Carter discovered it and always thought how amazing to have been there when Carter opened that tomb for the first time. This was really the inspiration for my book. I created a character, a young boy, a “tomb robber”,from the neighboring village of Gurna and I put him at King Tut’s tomb the moment Carter first saw it. This is how I brought children into this story, this amazing moment. I did the same with my earlier book, Voyage to the Pharos, about Alexandria’s ancient Pharos lighthouse. I set this book in ancient times, put a young Greek boy on a ship in Greece and then sent him through a few harrowing adventures before he finally saw that magnificent lighthouse, a sign he’d made it safely to Alexandria. I guess what I’m saying is that I believe story is a wonderful way to help children experience something fantastic that they might not experience otherwise. And I guess I hope my books help children experience a few things fantastic, and fascinating, about Egypt,” Gauch expounds.

“Carter had spent five years learning the Valley down to the bedrock”.

The author and I, have two children each. Our children, are no longer young kids. However, Gauch does not have the older reader in mind. Her intention is to lure the youngsters to the enchantment of reading books for children. Yet, I dare say that adolescents and even adults would be charmed by  The Tomb Robber and King Tut. “If we help our children develop a love of story, of reading at an early age I do believe they will continue to read and to love reading. Yes, they will play computer games or whatever, but they will also read. When my children, for example, found a book that gripped them, whether Harry Potter, the Percy Jackson or Divergent series, all gadgets were set aside and they’d read that book, often finishing it in a day or two. As far as picture books, they loved to be read to when they were younger, then to read themselves when they were a bit older. I believe that picture books are particularly appealing because of the illustrations-there are wonderfully illustrated picture books in the market today,”  Gauch  spells out.

“Too many to name, really, but just off the top of my head: Eric Carle’s books or Peggy Rathman, Patricia Polacco. I could go on and on. And, of course, there are the classics, which are still much loved: Dr Seuss, Eloise, the Madeline series,” she clarifies.

“As an English speaker, I’m mentioning English books, but there are also wonderful Arabic-language children’s books,” the author notes. However, Gauch’s Weltanschauung, her worldview, is universal.

“What I guess I’d mainly like to stress here is the irreplaceable importance of story for kids. I think there will always be stories that need to be told, authors who yearn to tell them and readers who want to read them. I, for example, have always been fascinated by Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb. I’ve marveled over those old black-and-white photos of the tomb the day Carter discovered it and always thought how amazing to have been there when Carter opened that tomb for the first time. This was really the inspiration for my book. I created a character, a young boy, a “tomb robber”, from the neighboring village of Gurna and I put him at King Tut’s tomb the moment Carter first saw it. This is how I brought children into this story, this amazing moment,” Gauch sums up.

The result is irresistible, and charmingly seductive. “What I do see in children’s books these days is a greater need to grab readers quicker and more compellingly. Perhaps this is a result of having to compete with the Internet and all the gadgets. Books that we may have loved as children, particularly novels, may seem a bit quiet, to move a bit slower these days. Also, I think picture books may have less text, for example, than before. So, books and authors are having to adjust to the times,” the author elaborates.

Gauch is captivated with the haunting themes of memory and mystery. Details are provided delicately, thoughtfully and tenderly.

The author is an accomplished storyteller. The Tomb Robber and King Tut contains little that will surprise Egyptologists, but  children and lay readers will certainly find this book both intriguing and engrossing. Coupled with Garns captivating oil paintings, this work is terrifically illuminating, and historically, culturally and anthropologically enlightening.

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