Allison's Book Bag

Archive for the ‘Northern Africa’ Category

Make way Sherlock Holmes and Nancy Drew! There’s a new detective team in town. In Ra The Mighty Cat Detective, Ra and his scarab beetle friend Khepri work to save a young servant girl who has been framed for theft of an amulet in a delightful new mystery for young people by A.B. Greenfield.

The duo of Ra and Khepri immediately won my affection. Ra is spoiled and lazy, liking nothing better than to sleep and eat 24-7, while Khepri is his hardworking sidekick. When Miu pleas for their help, Ra agrees only because he’s blackmailed by Khepri who threatens to fill Ra’s treats with dung if he does nothing. However, Ra soon finds himself enjoying the thrill of hunting down clues and prowling after suspects. He also shows that buried underneath his selfish demeanor lays a caring heart. The longer he works the mystery, the more convinced he becomes that Tedimut is innocent and doesn’t deserve a death sentence. As for Khepri, he proves himself as more than a sidekick, when he puts his life on the line to save Ra from an aggressive leopard and other dangerous encounters. He also shines as a character in his own right, using his mental prowress to figure out the real thief.

The setting for Ra The Mighty Cat Detective fascinated me. Greenfield seamlessly integrated details of ancient Egyptian court life, royal food, religious artifacts, and beloved animals into a comical and engaging adventure. What’s even more impressive is how much rooted in real history the mystery is. In the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, one can find a statue of a cat and a scarab beetle, and this statue inspired Greenfield’s story. There really existed a Director of the Royal Loinclothes and other important people with long titles. Egyptians loved to serve all kinds of meat delicacies except for fish. Amulets were worn for luck and protection. Finally, Egyptians revered animals–particularly cats and beetles. Cats were often worshipped. As for beetles, they were favored due to Egyptians due to the ability of beetles to roll dung into large balls and to have baby beetles emerge from those balls.

I’d be remiss if I failed to mention other elements that I enjoyed. The plot is full of twists and turns. Every time Ra (and I) thought he’d figured out the suspect, a new piece of information proved him wrong. There is a huge cast of characters, especially of animals. Every reader will have their favorite, but mine is Miu, a cat whom everyone should have in their life due to her self-sacrificing and preserving personality. The style is easy-to-read and should appeal to both reluctant readers. At the same time, there’s enough attention to detail that avid readers will also find their attention held.

Although I’ve been trying to reduce the number of Advanced Reader Copies I accept, Ra The Mighty Cat Detective is one I couldn’t resist due to the original and fun concept. And now that I’ve been introduced to this new and endearing detective team, I’ll be watching for sequels.

Has a book or movie ever so immersed you that any questions you might have about plot or character don’t enter your mind? At least not until the story is finished? And even then you still like it? This is how I felt about The Glass Collector by Anna Perera, which is based on research into current events in Egypt. Only as the end of her tale of fifteen-year-old Aaron drew near did I began to wonder about some of its flaws. Yet I still thoroughly enjoyed my glimpse into a world very different from mine.

For example, there isn’t much of a traditional plot. Aside from a love story, the bulk of the first half of the book is about the daily routines of Aaron and his family as they collect and sort through garbage, looking for items they can sell. Any events are only loosely connected. Aaron sees a vision of Saint Mary at a local hotel, a friend marries a hateful husband, a bomb kills two and destroys property, a presidential visit receives minimal attention, and a motorcycle accident injures Aaron’s girlfriend. Any of these incidents could be removed with little impact. It’s not until Aaron’s family disown him for stealing perfume bottles from a local merchant that a real crisis emerges.

There also isn’t much in the way of traditional character development, in that Aaron never really changes. For instance, there’s his theft of the perfume bottles. He begins with two and gradually adds more, and there’s no doubt would have continued this thievery if he hadn’t been caught and ostracized. When his community accepts him again, Aaron only sometimes feels guilty about these actions. His family hates him without reason and then suddenly his brother loves him. Even his friends (including girls with romantic intentions) are hot and cold about their affection for him. Finally, there is the unevenness with which the story’s viewpoint is handled. Generally, the story is told in third-person limited, inside Aaron’s head. Occasionally, Perera randomly shares glimpses into other characters, perhaps to create an understanding for how others behave around Aaron. For example, three-quarters into the book, she tells how Aaron’s brother feels and why. Unfortunately, it seems out of place this late into the book and succeeds only in disconnecting me from Aaron’s story.

Despite these flaws, here are the reasons why I think The Glass Collector is worth seeking out. First, while it lacks a traditional plot, it doesn’t need one. As fragmented as its scenes may be, they fit together like the panels of a quilt, to create an over all impression of the Zabbeleen community. At one point, Aaron must make a decision of whether to stay with his people or to escape to a cleaner, safer, and wealthier life. Part of what makes the dilemma so tough for him is that the community is essentially one big family. By the time he faces that decision I understand how he feels, because I’m sad to leave his world too when Perera’s novel ends. Character development is a trickier issue. Yes, I wish Aaron had felt more remorse over his thievery. And the sudden changes in attitude of those around him remind me of It’s Okay Now by Gary Schdmit, which I loved until the end when I felt betrayed by the unjustified happily-ever-after conclusion. The character issues pale, however, in contrast to being able to see inside the world of a culture previously unknown to me, and which, judging from everything I’ve read, seems to have been realistically portrayed. Although Perera isn’t from Egypt, she did visit the Zabbeleen and developed tremendous respect for them. This shows through in her author’s note and in her vivid descriptions. As for the switching viewpoints, this flaw didn’t bother me until near the end. Even then, I still remained absorbed in Aaron’s story.

The Glass Collector will pull you into a new world. And when you finally must depart from it you’ll have plenty to think about. Perera left me wanting to know more about the actual Zabbeleen, which to me is a mark of a winning book.

My rating? Read it: Borrow from your library or a friend. It’s worth your time.

How would you rate this book?

Today in Cairo, there is a city within a city; a city filled with garbage. As one of the Zabbaleen people, Aaron makes his living sorting through the waste. When his family kicks him out, his only alternatives are to steal, beg, or take the most nightmarish work of all.

The above description comes from the inside flap of The Glass Collector, a young adult book by Anna Perera, which is based on research and real events happening in Egypt. Perera is also the author of Guantanamo Boy. The plot of that book, a fifteen-year-old Briton of Pakistani descent has been abducted from his aunt’s home in Pakistan, and held without charges in the world’s most notorious prison, was also inspired by news events.

AUTHOR

According to Perera’s bio on her website, she was born in London to a Sri Lankan, Buddhist father and Irish, Catholic mother and grew up twenty miles away. After teaching English in two secondary schools in London, she ran a unit for teenage boys who were excluded from school and later completed a Master of Arts in Writing For Children.

In 2006, while attending an event for the charity Reprieve, she learned children had been abducted and rendered to Guantanamo Bay. This event inspired her first book which was translated into several languages and nominated for many awards, including shortlisting for The Costa Children’s Book Award.

An interview with Bookwitch reveals that the inspiration for her second novel, The Glass Collector, came from an article sent to Perera by her agent. She read the article, didn’t know where next to go, and so loaded up YouTube. After checking out a few more articles, she decided to visit Egypt. The Glass Collector, which tells the story of 15-year-old Aaron and his life in the slums of present day Egypt, was the result. While writing it, Perera made a conscious choice to include a lot of dramatic life-changing events, as with Slumdog Millionaire, because in reality very few people do escape that life. “And I wanted to give some kind of honest account of that, and some dignity.”

CULTURAL SETTING

The Glass Collector is set entirely in Egypt and based on a real group, the Zabbeleen who collect garbage, sort it, and then sell the sorted garbage to a middleman. Researching the cultural accuracy of The Glass Collector let me to articles about the Zabaleen, Coptic Christians, glass collectors, and even the role of pigs in garbage collection.

Let me start with the Zabaleen. According to Wikipedia, The Zabbaleen have been Cairo’s informal garbage collectors for approximately the past seventy to eighty years. The word Zabbaleen even means “Garbage people” in Egyptian Arabic. For those who would like information beyond Wikipedia, you might turn to Ahram Online, an English-language news web site published by Al-Ahram Establishment or Egypt’s largest news organisation, which described the Zabaleen as “farmers from Assiut in Upper Egypt who migrated to Cairo in the 1940s to escape poor harvests. The Wahiya, people of Egypt’s Western Desert, had asked the Zabaleen to join forces with them in Cairo’s garbage-collection trade, in which they have successfully carved a niche out for themselves since the early twentieth century.”

According to Wikipedia, Coptic Christians constitute the largest Christian community in the Middle East, as well as the largest religious minority in the region, accounting for an estimated 10% of the Egyptian population. Apparently, as a religious minority in modern Egypt, Coptic Christians are often subject to discrimination and are the target of attacks by militant Islamist extremist groups. Although this latter isn’t the subject of The Glass Collector, I did find of interest the numerous news reports which refer to religious persecution of the Coptic Christians. In The Glass Collector, religion is important only to the extent that the families are Catholic, report to a priest, and believe in visions of Mary. For those who would like information beyond Wikipedia, The Christian Coptic Orthodox Church Of Egypt reports that The Coptic Church is based on the teachings of Saint Mark who brought Christianity to Egypt during the reign of the Roman emperor Nero in the first century.

When it comes to glass collectors, I found mostly references to the fact that the Zabaleen collect shards of glass, along with the rest of the garbage which National Geographic details as: “a daily assortment of kitchen slops, broken plastic, discarded card and paper, scrap metal, odd socks, and other junk”. Glass seems however to be important in Egypt, considering that the Egyptian Museum featured a collection of it in 2012.

Then there is the role of pigs in garbage collection in Egypt. According to <a href=”Wikipedia” target=”_blank”>Wikipedia, the Zabbaleen use donkey-pulled carts and pick-up trucks to transport the garbage that they collect from the residents of Cairo, transport the garbage to their homes, sort the garbage there, and then sell the sorted garbage to middlemen. Where do the pigs come in? Well, Zabbaleen live among the trash that they sort in their village and with the pigs to which they feed their organic waste. Washington Post reports, “Pigs used to play a central role in this city’s rudimentary waste management system. But since a 2009 health code outlawed the practice of owning pigs that feed on garbage … the trash has been stacking up.”

ONLINE RESOURCES

For online resources, I am referring you to only two articles. First, if you’d like a better picture of the real-life crisis happening right now in Egypt, type in “garbage collection in Egypt” in your search engine. Here is one article that might turn up: Egypt’s Garbage Problem

Second, to return my discussion back to books, let’s talk about authors and Egypt. Although she traveled to Cairo for her research, Anna Perera is from London. What literature is available from Egyptian writers? Although I couldn’t find anything specific to young people, I did find a New York Times article which reported that because of recent revolution, “artists, intellectuals, and youth at large are beginning to fashion a new cultural republic of sorts even as they also struggle to find their bearings.” Consequently, the face of literature is changing and so are the literary outputs for and by youth.


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