Category Archives: Egyptian American

Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave by Shyima Hall with Lisa Wysocky

Hidden Girl Hall“If this book leads to even a single rescue, then my time in bondage was worth it,” Shyima Hall writes in the penultimate paragraph in the final chapter of her new memoir. That “time in bondage” she refers to is four long years during which she was a slave. This is not a long-ago story. This is a 20th-into-21st century nightmare: “when you are a slave, your life belongs to someone else. It is an unimaginable existence for most people, and I am glad of that. I hope that soon no one will ever have to feel the overwhelming sense of loss, frustration, exhaustion, hunger, demeaning words, and physical abuse that I did.”

In her native Egypt, Shyima El-Sayed Hassan was born in 1989 into a large family living in extreme poverty. She was the seventh of 11 children of an abusive, usually-absent father and a powerless, desperate mother. She knew little of her older siblings, although she remembers being sexually molested by older brothers. She helped care for the younger children, whose names she is no longer “100 percent sure about.” And yet she remembers those early childhood years with longing and love.

At 8, Shyima’s parents sold her to a wealthy family; her enslavement was the price for a theft committed by Shyima’s older sister when she was a servant in that home. At 10, the captor family moved to southern California, smuggling Shyima into the U.S. with a hired attendant (who traveled first class, while Shyima went solo in steerage). For two years, she lived in “a tiny windowless storage room in the three-car garage” of a luxurious home in an exclusive gated community. Shyima, who had been one among substantial staff in the five-floored mansion on the sprawling compound in Egypt, was now alone in serving her captor family of two parents and five children. Two years later, when she was finally rescued from her captors, her English vocabulary consisted of three words: hi, dolphin, stepsister.

In spite of being ‘free,’ Shyima knew virtually nothing of the world outside her captors’ home. What most children, most human beings, took for granted – school, friendships, hobbies – were all unknown experiences for Shyima. She would endure two foster homes, and an adoptive family that gave her an American last name but little else, until she was able to choose her own life as a young adult.

As wrenching as Shyima’s life story is, as literature, her memoir ultimately disappoints. Co-written with author Lisa Wysocky, whose previous titles are mostly equestrian-focused, Hidden Girl tends toward uneven, repetitive, pedestrian at best. How unfortunate that such an important story – more 17,000 new slaves are trafficked into the U.S. each year; a mere 2% are eventually rescued – gets mired in such a mediocre narrative. That said, perhaps content trumps style here, and aware readers can work together to make Shyima’s wish – to “put an end to the terrible custom of slavery” – come true: “I hope that it is sooner rather than later.”

Readers: Young Adult, Adult

Published: 2014

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, ..Young Adult Readers, .Memoir, .Nonfiction, Egyptian, Egyptian American

The Revolution Happened and You Didn’t Call Me by Maged Zaher

For those of you who know me, this is no surprise: poetry is my literary Achilles’ heel. But my contrary nature occasionally gets brave enough to try again, and the few times I eke out some level of comprehension, you’ll read about it here. [Any illumination offered will be much appreciated and, even more so, encouraged: Please don't make me beg.]

So a (renowned) poet friend alerted me to this slim collection when I mentioned that contemporary Egypt was my latest literary destination for my other major project, 10×10: Educate Girls | Change the World. The tiny book itself is an exquisitely bound creation – designed by Allison Hanabusa, a just-out-of-college artist clearly talented far beyond her youth – that is as much about its sparse content as the experiences not included, missing, forgotten, overlooked. I’m still not quite sure if I should read it as one epic piece or many related snippets … I decided (perhaps because of my penchant for prose) to go with the former.

Defying categorization, Revolution is part travelogue, part mocking commentary, part surprised questioning, part cultural rediscovery. Over not-quite 70 pages, the Seattle-based Maged Zaher journeys twice to his native Cairo, his travel commencing six months after the Egyptian Revolution initially erupted in January 2011. “The revolution happened and you didn’t call me,” he expounds.

Like most of the world, Zaher’s revolutionary participation happened virtually, from a great distance: “if you follow the attached link / The state will happily deliver its violence to your computer screen.” Zaher seems to both channel and contrast the oft-cited 1970 poem by Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which demands immediacy: “You will not be able to stay home, brother / You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out / … The revolution will be no re-run brothers; / The revolution will be live.”

Zaher’s transnational identity makes him both insider and other in both the U.S. and Egypt: “It is Cairo,” he writes during his first return. “So I am up all night / Texting flawed translations.” His multi-lingual, postponed participation of what happened in his homeland is both privileged and distanced, as he questions, “What would it look like without this second language”? He watches with sharp eyes the latest mutations of “a city under heavy rebranding,” complete with “bearded men / And lovers / Walking to McDonald’s / (The one next to the armored vehicle).” He finds himself in a “coffee shop,” “[s]urrounded by judgmental cops / And fear of imagined violence / … As I am watching the world go digital.”

Fear looms. Uncertainty remains certain. But that ubiquitous digital connection will make sure that the next revolution, every revolution, will be televised, an infinite loop playing over and over again, live participation ever optional.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2012

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Filed under ..Adult Readers, .Poetry, Egyptian, Egyptian American

Coming to America: A Muslim Family’s Story by Bernard Wolf

Coming to AmericaA touching story about an immigrant Muslim family of five from Egypt, which shows details from their everyday lives. The book is especially relevant now, in order to expose young readers to a people and a religion that have been wrongly demonized by the Western media. Wolf uses his photography to show how the family fluidly integrates their religious beliefs into their daily activities, and poignantly shows the parents’ hopes and dreams for the futures of their three children.

Review: “New and Notable Books,” AsianWeek, September 26, 2003

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2003

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Filed under ..Children/Picture Books, ..Middle Grade Readers, .Nonfiction, Egyptian American