Egypt’s 19th century gift to France inspires new children’s book ‘Grace the Giraffe’
DUBAI: In 1827, the people of Paris saw the rarest of sights. The ruler of Egypt, Muhammad Ali Pasha, sent an unusual diplomacy gift to King Charles X of France: A female giraffe from Nubia, dubbed “la belle africaine,” that caused a sensation and set trends in French society.
This real-life and little-known story inspired Paris-based couple Oliver Gee and Lina Nordin Gee to create their third and latest children’s book, “Grace the Giraffe,” which will be released in October.
It captures a light-hearted aspect of this historical event. “A few books have been written about the giraffe, but they’re quite dry,” Oliver, an Australian, and host of The Earful Tower podcast, told Arab News.
“We thought the fun part of the story was just as much this reaction from Parisians,” he continued. “It’s a fashion story of people going crazy, where women had their hair looking like the horns or ears of the giraffe.”
Originally from southern Sudan, the giraffe was transported via the Nile and crossed the Mediterranean, landing in Marseille. “She was in a boat with a hole so her head could stick out, which is amazing,” noted Oliver.
The giraffe endured a long and arduous journey as she was walked from Marseille to Paris for weeks. She grew physically along the way, accompanied by a procession of cows that provided milk. “By the time that she was in Marseille, a giraffe hadn’t been in Europe for 300 years,” said Oliver. “So today, it would be like an alien is here.”
In Paris, the giraffe lived in a zoo for under two decades until her death. “Everybody went to see her,” said Oliver. “Even in the small cities, half the population came to see her go past. It was insane.” She achieved her own kind of celebrity, as the elegant creature appeared on fans and ceramics. Luckily, the giraffe’s body has been preserved over the years and is currently on display at a museum in La Rochelle, France.
“Grace the Giraffe” was written by Oliver and illustrated by his wife, Lina. Told in rhyming couplets with little twists in the narrative, the charming piece of work features colorful spreads of Grace’s boat journey, extraordinary procession, and whirlwind arrival in the French capital.
The news of the book’s publication has been well-received online, sparking interest from readers of all ages. “From a history perspective,” said Oliver, “it’s cool to know that children and adults will be learning about a fascinating story.”