The car stops, and a young Egyptian man, Haytham Al Sayyed, steps out. The children of the village run towards him. They know his car very well. The owner of the “stories car” (3rbyt hawadet) begins his mission: he tells them a new story, and all eyes are wide open fixed on him with fascination.
Haytham Al Sayyed has succeeded in distributing more than 18 thousand free books to children in 65 villages around Egypt. Haytham does it without any government support. He is motivated by the belief that a book in the hands of a child can make society better, but also reduce extremism and radicalism. He is moved by the fact that the children in most poor Egyptian villages only read their school books. For him, this is a big mistake, and someone needs to change it. So he decided to be this person.
Haytham is an English language teacher in a school in the Eastern province. He also writes children books, the last one “the treasure of aunty Masroura” is published by Asala publishers in Beirut. The young Egyptian tells Raseef22 that: “in this country, you are forgotten, and the government does not care about you as long as you do not live in Cairo. Basic services are almost non-existent, let alone anything that government officials consider luxury. You are not allowed to take part in any cultural activity, and there is not one film theater that is accessible for your village. To go and see a theater play is a dream for you and a nightmare for the officials. To join a chorus or to learn how to draw, is like a science fiction plot. In short, anything that the government considers leisure, is absent in poor villages.”
According to a new report by the International Labor Organization, there are 1.5 million children working in Egypt. The village where Haytham lives is considered an example for this report. He lives in the village of Dawama, in the eastern province, in the Delta area of Egypt. People here live from agriculture, and some light industry such as cage building from palm leafs. The village only has two schools, one is a primary school, the other elementary. Haytham noticed that the majority of the kids in the village work the same jobs as their parents. They wake up early in the morning, and go with the parents to the fields to work. At 8am they head to school. After school, more difficult work, work that is not suitable for their age. The people in the village do not care whether their children read or not. Putting food on the table takes up all their time and effort. Haytham adds that: “when I talk to the children about books and culture, they look at me as if I was an alien. Their eyes are tired from exhaustion because of working besides school. Furthermore, the financial difficulties of their parents makes it that they do not care much about buying books.”
The idea started when Haytham stopped his car at the side of a road to wait for someone. He spent this time reading a children's magazine he had bought for his daughter. Suddenly, a little girl’s head popped out from the window to look at the magazine with him. “What is this?” she asked. With a smile that hid sadness in his heart, he told her that it was a children's magazine. She was a little girl in third or forth grade, who did not know that there is such a thing in the world as a children's magazine. Haytham tried to simplify and explain the idea of the magazine. He told her that it was similar to a school book, but was more fun, with more images, and exciting stories. He gave her the magazine as a present. She was happy. She told her friends about “the man with the car who gave me a children's magazine as a present”. And Haytham found a group of children heading towards him asking for nice magazines. This is when Haytham decided to become the man who gives children books and magazines.
That same day, Haytham sat at home, and drew a plan for the initiative. He decided to collect children books to distribute free of charge to the children of his village as a start. Haytham needed some time at first to gather around 900 books and magazines: “at the time I wrote a Facebook post explaining my idea and asking people to donate books. Some of the comments were discouraging saying that I should better distribute bread and meat. Or that I should not bother since poor kids will just sell the books and buy food instead.” But this did not discourage him. To the contrary, it made him think more practically. What should he do to make sure the kids will read the books and magazines?
Haytham explains: “I started to distribute stories to the kids. I told them that I will come next time and ask each one to tell me what they learned from the story. If they were able to do that, I will give them a new story. This encouraged the kids to read. On my second visit, each child told me about their story, and one of them said that he would be willing to recite every line from the magazine, in exchange for a new one.” This is when Haytham realized he was on the right track. So he was no longer only going to distribute books, but he will tell stories to the kids as well: “The reactions were touching, I saw that the kids were reacting happily to the stories. They were listening attentively.” Storytelling became a core part of the project, and Haytham’s voice became synonymous with joy in the poor villages of Egypt.
The project started to grow and a team of volunteers joined him. An Egyptian bookshop and a publishing house donated 4000 books. Those in charge of the project refuse to take any monetary support from any side. They only take books and magazines. As opposed to the governmental organization who did not care for the idea, the Goethe Institute was interested and they arranged a big car painted with children drawings. They hired a performance artist named Haytham Shukri who is also skilled in storytelling to help Haytham in the bigger events.
The car has already visited more than 65 villages and around 18 thousand kids have received books. On social media the hashtag supporting the car received much interest from users who decided to donate books and support the initiative.
Haytham Sayyed’s trips in his car filled with stories shed light on the governmental neglect for dozens of Egyptian villages and children in particular. This also showed new reasons for the spread of extremism in Egyptian society. But it also proved that a simple idea can make a big difference.
The driver of the storytelling car does not stop dreaming. His next project will be to build a rural cultural center, that will include a theater, a library, a music room, and a painting studio. His aim is to serve the children of poor villages. Will Haytham succeed amid the governmental challenges and the absence of motivation about civil efforts? This remains to be seen.