For the students at the tiny Ibshadat primary school, surrounded by sugar cane fields in this southern Egyptian village, their library consisted of only 30 dog-eared books in a small cabinet.
That was before 700 books arrived, part of a new joint US-Egyptian program to provide libraries of Arabic and English titles to all of Egypt's 38,000 public schools, a huge undertaking to encourage children to read in a country where few have access to books and a quarter of adults are illiterate.
"This project is the result of a call to help, to get quality books in schools and to get kids reading," says an official with the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which funded and implemented the project with Egyptian experts and government officials.
With titles like "A Girl Named Helen Keller" and "Snow White," these book collections may have to traverse canals by boat or dirt roads by donkey to reach the schools, but organizers promise they'll get there.
The $20 million first phase of this program involves getting books to all public primary schools in seven of Egypt's 26 governorates, beginning this month. Books should reach Egypt's primary schools nationwide by early 2007 and preparatory and secondary schools by summer 2007. Once the program is completed, more than 16 million Egyptian students should have access to these books.
Ultimately, this program is part of a larger post-9/11 US plan to improve education across the Muslim world, to encourage a more open-minded view of the world, and help young people in these countries become more employable.
"More of us in diplomacy understand the need to put emphasis on education," says US Ambassador to Egypt Francis Ricciardone, "everything from building schools to training teachers to even creating simple things like libraries."
Expanding on a pilot project in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria that provided libraries to 300 public school classrooms, the National Book Program began soliciting bids last September from Egyptian and American publishing, printing, transportation, and furniture companies that would publish, deliver, and even make shelves for the libraries.
Another important goal of this program is to revitalize Egypt's publishing industry by increasing demand for books and helping the industry publish higher quality books. While selecting titles, publishing companies had to follow strict criteria created by a nine-member committee of Egyptian educators and librarians.
The collection of fiction, nonfiction, and reference books had to be attractive and interesting. The books also had to promote creativity, environmental awareness, and gender sensitivity. Even the paper stock had to be top quality. After program organizers chose a consortium of 19 Egyptian companies, these firms soon set to work.
It seems that so far this effort has paid off. At Ibshadat school, students and teachers marveled at their new collection of shiny, colorful books. "It's amazing," says teacher and librarian Manal Gamal Kamel. "The way they look - the students can hardly wait to pick them up and read them."
To ensure the program's sustainability, organizers and Egypt's Ministry of Education will train librarians and teachers on creative tactics to attract children to reading. Egypt's nongovernmental Integrated Care Society (ICS), which has conducted a 15-year national reading campaign, will send monitors to ensure that students make good use of the books. The ICS will also conduct a marketing campaign to further promote use of these books.
Eventually it is hoped this program will help increase adult literacy in Egypt. Here, as in many Arab countries, experts say, many children aren't reading for pleasure, either because they can't afford books, don't have access to books, or because they associate reading with the process of studying under educational systems based largely on rote memorization.
"Reading rates in Egypt are not only low, but decreasing," says a USAID official. "Kids don't get acclimated to reading, so their ability to read and expand their horizons is lost."
Egypt's adult illiteracy is 25.6 percent, according to the governmental Adult Education Agency, with a national goal of decreasing that rate to less than 9 percent by 2009. Getting children to love reading would be a great start to reaching this target, analysts say.
While book publishers and education experts rave that the National Book Program is finally fulfilling a dream of opening more libraries nationwide, some question limiting the collection's books to only those titles that consortium members published. "The collection is not necessarily the best books on the market today," says Amira Aboul Magd, managing director of Dar El Shorouk, a major Egyptian publishing company and consortium member. "The consortium became more important than the books."
Some also say that parents and children should have a larger role in book selection. "You have to listen to parents and students," says Raafat Radwan, chairman of the Adult Education Agency. "This is the way to engage people, so they contribute and participate in the process."
Titles in Arabic:
"Winnie the Pooh"
"The Magic School Bus/ Inside the Human Body"
"Snow White and the Seven Dwarves"
"The Wright Brothers"
Titles in English:
"Big Things Small Hands Can Do"
"Even Steven and Odd Todd"
"A Girl Named Helen Keller"