Laylatul Nar is a well-deserved choice for the IBBY honor list, as it tackles a very important issue that is never addressed in children's literature: marginalized social classes. Remarkably enough, the story is not about class struggle, or friction, or even social mobility; it is about humanizing the people that live on the fringes of society. El Sharouni sheds light on a governing reality in which the majority of Egyptians live: informal settlements (mistakenly called “slums,” though that kind of labeling deserves a separate discussion). Such a reality is often absent from children’s education and upbringing; often ignored by parents who can provide enough for their children to read.
The events of this story takes place in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Cairo, Mensheyet Nasser. There is a crisis when the big market—a cluster of wooden shacks on a once vacant land—is burnt to the ground. It becomes a life-or-death situation that threatens the economic livelihood of many families in Mensheyet Nasser: if the market is not built before the next morning, the government threatens to seize the land, the market would be lost forever, and the poverty-stricken shop owners would be evicted and would have to find another source of income in order to make ends meet. The plot unfolds through the eyes of the smart and determined thirteen-year-old Mokhtar, who urges his father to lead the people of Mensheyet Nasser to unite and rebuild the market on stronger foundations, literally overnight.
With elegant words and a smooth pace, Moktar portrays his community in engulfing details, taking us into a vivid environment that is unique in all ways possible. A world with its own adaptable resilient architecture and infrastructure, its own modes of transportation, its own financial system, its own policing system and friction with the government, its own social and geographical diversity, and even its own form of capitalism and exploitive practices. The author makes nods towards the role of civic society, higher education, waqf, and child labor in this world. He takes the readers on a journey and educates them on how such a world started, grew, and became independent. He shows us that these neighborhoods are actually built on entrepreneurship for the most part. Most importantly, he highlights the integral role of women in such communities, as providers and even leaders.
These themes are not thrown directly at the readers' faces or forced down their throats. Instead, these themes are the sub-text of the story. In fact, it is because of the embedded nature of these themes, that this story has “a happy ending.” These factors combine and culminate in a logical solution to the problem. Ultimately, Laylatul Nar is a galvanizing, optimistic story about the power of community. It is about how when people unite they can collectively achieve “supernatural miracles.” Moreover, the selfless act at the end of the story paints a smile on your face.
While the book deserves a better layout and illustrations, the story compensates in vividly creating a world that I can totally imagine adapted as a feature-length animated movie. The book is no doubt worth reading for children and adults alike.
Review by Omar El Hadidy
Laylatul Nar (The night of the fire)
Author: Yacoub El Sharouni
Illustrator: Samar Salah El Din
Publisher: Nahdet Misr, 2015
Recommended age group: 11-16
IBBY EGYPT HONOR LIST 2016 NOMINEE
المؤلف: يعقوب الشاروني
الرسام: سمر صلاح الدين
الناشر : نهضة مصر،٢.١٥
عدد الصفحات: ٨٨
الفئة العمرية: ١١-١٦
الكتاب المصري على قائمة الشرف للمجلس الدولي لكتب الأطفال لعام ٢٠١٦
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