From ‘Tickling Giants’ to making kids laugh: an interview with Bassem Youssef

Finding Holgate, Bassem says, was a “stroke of luck”. He came across ‘The Last Kids on Earth’, a TV series based on graphic novels illustrated by Holgate, on Netflix, and knew he wanted the same illustrator to work on his book. Asked why he didn’t choose an Egyptian or Arab artist, Bassem admits that he probably didn’t look hard enough, although he is sure that the talent is there in the Arabic-speaking world.

Embracing diversity and differences

Amid the rise of anti-immigration sentiment in the US and Europe, Bassem chose to centre his story around an immigrant girl. He explains: “Now more than ever, with the political climate influenced by Donald Trump and the rise of anti-immigration sentiment, there is a need to open a conversation about diversity with children.”

Titi, the teacher trapped in the amulet, is not just there to help Nadia – he is also an example of how a person can be excluded for being different. Titi himself was cursed because he was different to other priests.

Although the genie in Disney’s famous version of ‘Aladdin’ has been accused of perpetuating Orientalist stereotypes, Bassem is not worried about straying into that territory with his story. He sees Nadia as a contemporary American-Egyptian girl, as well as a clear distinction between the magical realm and her reality.

As real-life children do not have magic to help them learn and grow, Bassem says that “there is an entertainment value in magic, fantasy, and ancient history”. He adds that the story will be “a magical trip for kids”.

For inspiration, Bassem says that he read a selection of children’s books sent to him by Scholastic, as well as Egyptian myths and legends. He thinks the latter provided a wealth of life lessons that can be applied to our current times, drawing particularly on the story of the ‘Eloquent Peasant’, which is an ancient Egyptian tale about a peasant who was assaulted by the high steward, but receives justice because of his eloquence. Its ultimate message is that with presence of mind and sensibility, any person can defend their rights and demand justice. Or as Bassem puts it, “if you are good with your words, you can get your message across.”

Girls run the world

Bullying, racism and discrimination are not new themes for children’s books, but Bassem claims that “only a few books talk about bullying against immigrant children, and even fewer use ancient Egyptian history for lessons”. He explains that his book carries a particular message to its American audience. “The power of America is its diversity, as it is a nation of immigrants”.

The book will also be translated into Arabic, with some alterations to suit this readership, and Bassem explains that across the Middle East and North Africa region, girls are constantly being judged for how they behave. In that sense, although the book focuses on an Egyptian girl living in the US, he hopes girls around the world will be able to relate to Nadia, who teaches them to stand their ground and express their unique personalities.

The book’s twist comes when the boy who has been bullying Nadia realises that he is also of immigrant descent. He learns that his forefathers, who came from Ireland, had faced all sorts of challenges. Bassem says he learned a lot from writing a children’s book, adding that what he likes most about life after ‘El-Bernameg’ is that he can now work on projects he didn’t have the time for before. Perhaps, like Titi, he has broken out of his cage to take us on a magical tour of his mind.

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