Young Adult

The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye: Action Packed Adventure Tale of a Palestinian Teen Against All Odds

ArabKidLitNow recommends Taghreed Najjar’s Etisalat Prize-shortlisted novel, The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye (لغز عين الصقر):

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2014

Author: Taghreed Najjar

Illustrations: Ammar Khattab

Publisher: Al Salwa Publishing

Target age: 12+

Goodreads ratings: average 4.24 stars (out of 5)

Buy in Arabic: لغز عين الصقر

When the discovery of an old family heirloom reveals a cryptic glimpse into his family’s past, 17-year-old refugee Ziad must embark on a dangerous journey across the impenetrable border that divides him from the buried secrets of a past Palestine, a journey which may hold the key to his future.

After his father is arrested as a political prisoner, Ziad is forced to leave school and begin working to support his family. Toiling away each day from dawn ‘til dusk at the infamous Qalandia checkpoint, selling tea and tissues to the endless lines of traffic, Ziad must reluctantly say goodbye to his dream of graduating from high school and going on to university, family is just too important to him, and his mother is struggling to support him and his younger sister Najwa and little brother Selim. Things go from bad to worse when Selim falls gravely ill and requires an operation in an Israeli hospital which the family simply can’t afford. But there may be a light at the end of the tunnel, locked up in his great-grandmother Sitti’s cloudy memories of the days before the Nakba…

Ziad must take a huge risk and leave everything he’s ever known to look for the ancient clues left for him by Sitti, taking him across the separation wall into occupied Palestine in search of his family’s ancestral village and the gold and jewellery that was buried there long ago. He must find the key to unlock his past and ensure his family’s future…

The everyday details of life for refugees in the West Bank are seamlessly woven together with an oral history of Palestine before the Nakba in this exciting adventure story from one of the leading writers of children’s and YA’s fiction in Arabic. It is a story to shine a light on the reality of Palestine, while also showing young readers that Palestinian children have many of the same worries and desires as children anywhere else. The charismatic lead Ziad and his resourceful younger sister Najwa will inspire and charm young readers and leave them deeply invested in this compelling tale of a perilous journey into a mysterious forgotten world.

From: The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye

Below, an excerpt from early in the book, as Ziad begins to think there might really be something to his great grandmother’s story.

By Taghreed Najjar

Translated by Joseph Devine

At Qalandia checkpoint, Ziad waited on tenterhooks for their return from the hospital. As soon as they arrived, he hugged Salim and gave him a kiss. He gave Najwa an urgent look, his eyes asking her about the outcome of the appointment, but his mother’s expression and Najwa’s averted glance were all the answer he needed. He got in a taxi with them and, sensing they were all exhausted, asked the driver to take them straight home.

After Salim had gone to sleep, Ziad’s mother had to excuse herself as she broke down in tears. “The doctor said Salim’s condition is serious, and he needs an operation that’s too expensive.”

Najwa rubbed her mother’s back, gave her a tissue to dry her eyes, and tried to calm her down.

“Don’t worry, Mama, I’m sure there’s a way for us to help Salim. The doctor has our phone number and he said he’ll try his best.”

Their great grandmother Sitti suddenly cried out, “Oh my! Mahmoud’s in prison and his son’s dying!”

“Don’t speak like that, Sitti!” Um Ziad shouted. “Salim is not going to die. There’s an operation that can save him, and he’ll lead a normal life.” She paused for a moment and then went on in a hushed voice. “But where will we get the money for it? What a nightmare.” She started weeping again.

“Remember, Mama, didn’t the doctor say that if we can pay for the tests, he’ll try and find a way to pay for the operation?”

“Tell me, Najwa, how will we even pay for the tests? They’re expensive, too.”

“Simple!” shouted Sitti. “How about we sell my gold? There’s ten gold bracelets, twenty-five gold liras, six rings, four gold chains, and…”

“For heaven’s sake Sitti!” snapped Um Ziad. “When will we have enough of this story about the gold? You’ve been going on about it for years. If we had such treasures, then we wouldn’t be living this miserable life. We’d have had the best lawyer for Mahmoud, Ziad would be on his way to university by now, and we’d have paid for the tests already. No, please, Sitti. Enough of this gold nonsense, it hurts my head.”

Sitti drifted off, and a confused look came over her face, as if she were summoning a memory from the distant past. There was gold… she thought. Then, like a skipping record, she repeated, “Ten gold bracelets, twenty-five gold liras, six rings, four gold chains, and…”

She perked up after a few moments and continued, “I was a new bride, and Ismail was head of the household. Everyone in town respected him and valued his word. One day, he came home and called a meeting. He told us they’d received word that, two days earlier, Zionist militias had attacked the village of Deir Yassin, that they’d killed dozens of people and robbed their homes, and that they were heading our way. He said we’d all have to leave our village for a few days and then come back when the situation got better. Some of the women began wailing and hitting themselves, but Ismail shouted, in a voice that shook the house and made everyone as quiet as mice, and said…”

Suddenly, she went quiet. Then she turned to Ziad and said, “Ismail, tell them what you said!”

Everyone laughed as Ziad grabbed her hand and said, “Sitti, I’m Ziad, your great grandson.”

“Oh goodness me, of course!” cried Sitti. “By the way, have I ever mentioned you’re his spitting image?”

Um Ziad clapped her hands. “Oh, for heaven’s sake, Sitti. What will become of us?”

That night, Ziad couldn’t sleep. He couldn’t stop thinking about everything Sitti had said. He’d heard the story of the gold dozens of times before, but he’d never paid it much attention, since Sitti was always confusing events and forgetting things. But today, it had made him stop and wonder. Why did Sitti still insist on this story? Why did she repeat such exact amounts of gold? “Ten gold bracelets, twenty-five gold liras, six rings, four gold chains, and…”

No one ever took her story seriously, but…what if it was true? What if all that gold really existed someplace, and Sitti was the only one who knew where? If he could find out where it was and get it back, then they’d be able to pay for Salim’s operation, and he could finish school and go to university, and who knows what else…

“You’re really clutching at straws here, Ziad,” he told himself mockingly. “And even if the gold did exist, how would you find it? Is it even possible? They took over the whole country decades ago, so wherever it was left, surely someone would’ve found it by now? But then again, what if…?”

He stayed awake, tossing and turning in bed until the light of dawn crept in. That’s when he made his decision to talk to Sitti in private, in the hope that she could tell him more.

#

The next evening, after dinner, Ziad was able to talk to Sitti alone.

“Sitti, tell me about the gold. What’s the story? Did it really exist or not?”

She replied with excitement. “Of course it did! Who says it didn’t?”

“But whose gold was it? Tell me.”

“It was mine of course,” she said. “And it’s my will and testament before God and his prophet that this gold should be given to the family of my grandson Mahmoud, oh how he weighs on my mind!” She began to pray, “May God, most capable and generous, accept him and grant him success, relieve him of his worries, and release him from prison.”

“Inshallah, Sitti. Can you tell me more?”

Sitti looked around hesitantly, then said, “Okay, I’ll tell you. But listen carefully, and don’t tell anyone else. This is a secret between you, me, and your Jiddu Ismail.”

“Don’t worry Sitti, I won’t tell.”

“So, where was I?” she asked. “Oh, yes. Ismail had just told us about the slaughter at Deir Yassin. We were so scared, we were crying and wailing, because you know, Ziad, Deir Yassin was very close to our village of Lifta. But Ismail—God rest his soul—he was a tough man, and he quickly stopped all the fuss and came up with a plan. ‘Enough tears! We must leave our homes and go to a safe place, far from these Zionist gangs. It won’t be more than ten days or so before we’ll be able to return. We’ve heard that the Arab armies are on their way to defend us. So don’t take anything heavy or unnecessary. It’s only for a few days. Do you understand?’

“I understood, and so did my sisters-in-law: Safiya, Fatima, and Bahiya. We nodded and told him ‘Yes!’… See, Ziad, back in those days, we all lived together in a big house for the extended family, and… Where was I?”

Ziad was afraid that she’d get distracted and drift off-topic. “Then what happened, what was Jiddu’s plan?”

“Ah, yes!” she continued. “He looked at us, gave us an empty box, and said in a thunderous voice:

“‘Listen to me, all of you, and listen well. We’ve heard that these gangs have been looting all the abandoned homes and taking everything of value. So I need all of you to give me your gold. Put it in a bag, I’ll write everyone’s names on each bag, and we’ll put them in this box, which I’ll bury somewhere safe. Don’t worry, not even the Blue Djinn will find it! Everyone will get their gold back when we return after all this violence. I promise you all, and you know I always keep my word.’

“Your Jiddu, may he rest in peace, was famous in the town for being trustworthy, all the merchants said his word was better than any legal document, that he was always kept a promise and gave everyone what they were due. Everyone used to say, ‘This free man keeps his word’…”

Ziad began to feel that there might be some truth in Sitti’s story after all. He pressed her to keep going. “And what happened next, Sitti?”

“What happened?” she asked. “They stole Palestine and made us all refugees, that’s what happened! Enough, Ziad. I’m tired and need to sleep for a while. Get me my blanket.”

Joseph Devine holds a Bachelor’s degree in Arabic & Persian at SOAS University of London, and is currently studying a Master’s degree in Comparative Literature (Arabic-Western) at Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar, where he also works as a research assistant, translator, and editor.

Taghreed Najjar is a pioneer of modern children’s literature in Jordan. A graduate of the American University of Beirut,Taghreed started her career as a teacher before becoming a full time writer of picture books and young adult novels. Her YA novels have been celebrated widely by her readers and various schools in the region have adopted them as part of their curriculum. A number of her books have won awards while others have been translated into English, Swedish, Turkish, French, and Chinese.  

Awards

Ibtisam Barakat Wins SZBA’s Children’s Literature Prize for ‘The Lilac Girl’

Organizers of the Sheikh Zayed Book Award (SZBA) today announced the winners — in seven categories — of their 14th annual prize:

This year’s Children’s Literature prize went to Palestinian-American author Ibtisam Barakat for her picture book الفتاة الليلكية (The Lilac Girl, 2019) published by Palestine’s Tamer Institute for Community Education. The book is part of a series focused around Palestinian artists, this one inspired by the painter Tamam al-Akhal. “Instead of telling a story with words, she tells her pain to the watercolors and her happiness to the oil pastels.”

Barakat publishes in both Arabic and English; several of her previous books have met with awards and acclaim. Her التاء المربوطة تطير (The Ta’ That Flies) won an Anna Lindh Foundation prize in 2011, while her English-language awards include an  International Reading Association’s Best Non Fiction for YA in 2008, the Middle East Council Best Literature Book Award in 2007, and an Arab American Book Award in the Children/ Young Adult Category in 2008. In addition to several books in Arabic, Barakat has two works in English: Tasting the Skya memoir, and Balcony on the Moona YA memoir.

According to organizers, a record-breaking total of 1900 entries were submitted this year, including 205 in children’s literature.

In lieu of a ceremony — set to be held during the now-cancelled Abu Dhabi International Book Fair — the seven winners will be presented via a livestream video on April 16, through the SZBA website.

Each winner is set to receive 750,000 UAE dirhams (approximately $204,000 USD).

More:

On the Palestinian artist Tamam al-Akhal

On Ibtisam Barakat

Middle Grade · Young Adult

RECOMMENDED: Fearless Upper MG Fantasy ‘Dragon of Bethlehem’

Huda El Shuwa’s popular and acclaimed 2017 novella Dragon of Bethlehem is about looking up at the sky, seeing things from a new vantage point, and how—even when things seem hopeless—it’s possible to change the small things around you.

Adaptations: In 2018, it was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and the The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music:

Author: Huda El Shuwa

Publisher: Tamer Institute

Contact: info@arablit.org, tamer@palnet.com

Buy in Arabic: تنين بيت لحم 

This short work— just 76 pages in Arabic and perhaps 20,000 words in English—is built around a boy named Khidr who’s just turned 16, and who lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp south of Bethlehem. Khidr has recently lost his only friend, isn’t a good student, and his father is in a psychiatric hospital. The other kids at school bully him, and the teachers aren’t much kinder. Khidr meets a sarcastic dragon (or rather, the dragon barges into his tiny camp house during the rain, because dragons do not like rain) who takes him up into the skies above Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the surrounding areas to show him his world afresh. Although at first his teachers just punish him even more for his new creativity, Khidr is not deterred, and eventually even goes to visit his father at the psychiatric hospital.

In 2018, Dragon of Bethlehem was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. It is exciting, gives a brief brush of Palestinian history landscapes, and also manages to be uplifting, with a smile-through-your-tears ending.

An excerpt from the beginning appears on ArabLit and another, from near the end of the novel, is forthcoming on Words Without Borders.

It opens:

TO SCHOOL

Khidr…

Khidr…

Khidr…

“It’s six o’clock… Come on, get up…”

Khidr wriggled in his bed, drifting between sleep and wakefulness as he drew his woolen Tom and Jerry blanket up over his head. He couldn’t sleep outside this haven—it had sheltered him from his first year to his sixteenth, which had just begun last Wednesday.

He hated waking up early so much. And he hated school…and oh, he hated first period…

He wished he could sleep a little longer in this warm bed, under the ancient woolen blanket that was like a cave full of beautiful, safe dreams. To go to the high school near his house meant he had a morning walk down cold, dark lanes, before the sun dared spread its wings firmly across the sky above Dheisheh Refugee Camp.

“Mmmmsleeeepy.”

The smell of sage tea, hard-boiled eggs, hot bread with zaatar… That’s what his mother fed him every morning, and it sent a little warmth his way, pulling him out of bed.

“Zaatar kickstarts the brain,” his mom would tell him every morning, as he sipped his tea. Khidr wasn’t sure about this saying; his brain felt completely shut off.

“Did you forget I’m seeing your dad today? Won’t you come with me? It’s so long since you’ve seen him.”

Khidr looked over at the picture hanging on the wall; the two people in it looked like wax statues. His dad was smiling in a black suit, while his mom was beside him in a white dress, wearing a lot of makeup… His mom didn’t wear makeup like that anymore, and she didn’t put on bright-colored clothes, either.

“No, Ma, I don’t want to see him. What am I going to say? I mean, I feel like I don’t know him.”

“How is that your father’s fault?” She lowered her head. He knew that look—the look where the light in her eyes flickered out. He felt a prick of conscience, as he did whenever he saw tears shining in her eyes.

Keep reading on ArabLit.

Young Adult

RECOMMENDED: Taghreed Najjar’s ‘Whose Doll Is This?’, A Palestinian Coming-of-age YA

ArabKidLitNow recommends Taghreed Najjar’s first Young Adult novel, Against the Tide (ست الكل).

Awards: Winner of the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2019

Author: Taghreed Najjar

Publisher: Salwa Books

Contact: rights@alsalwabooks.com.

Buy in Arabic: لمن هذه الدمية؟

Whose Doll Is This? is a Palestinian YA story for our times—a compelling tale of love, loss, injustice, and the possibilities of restitution. This page-turning coming-of-age tale centers on the discovery of a long-disappeared childhood doll and raises key issues, including cultural appropriation and coming to terms with one’s roots. WHOSE DOLL IS IT? is the fourth YA novel by award-winning author Taghreed Najjar, a 2019 nominee for the Astrid Lindgren award and a several-time winner and shortlistee of the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature. Najjar’s books have been translated to English, Italian, Swedish, Turkish, and French.

In Whose Doll Is This?, our teen lead, Arwa, is in her last year of high school. At first, she hardly considers herself Palestinian. She was brought up in the US, and her biggest concerns are her relationship with Stan and choosing a college. She chafes against her mom’s restrictions.

But then she comes to a lecture given by grandma, Dr. Laila, which she expects to be boring. When people heckle her grandma, Arwa begins to see things differently. This is also when she meets her new beau, Saeed. And when Arwa stumbles across her grandma’s beloved childhooddoll, she traces it back through previous owners to Nurit, who survived the Nazis and moved into Laila’s family home. Laila writes a book about the story. When it’s published, Nurit comes to a launch event and returns Laila’s old journal. But not everyone wants restorative justice: When Arwa and Laila travel to Israel to film a documentary based on the book, they meet with hostility. But now, the once-childish Arwa is steadfast.

There are more than six million diaspora Palestinians. Even more, the issues raised by this book—exile, cultural appropriation, teen relationships—would be interesting to any young adult (and adult) reader.

An excerpt from ‘Whose Doll Is This?’

The excerpt below is from chapter 15 of Whose Doll Is This?, titled “Mr. and Mrs. Wilson.” Arwa has by now found her grandma Laila’s beloved childhood doll on e-Bay, bought it from an antiques dealer, and drove out with her budding love interest Saeed to talk to the antiques dealer, Mr. Alexey. From him, she got the phone number and address of Mr. and Mrs. Wilson. When they don’t answer the phone, Sara and her friend Sara take a bus out to Bloomington, Indiana, to track them down.

Mr. and Mrs. Wilson

Then they were on their way to Bloomington, to meet the people who’d sold the doll to Mr. Alexey.

“I feel like we’re two high-powered investigators,” Sara said. “And, since the story of your grandma’s doll is so weird and unbelievable, and since I’m going to major in film, I’m totally going to make a documentary about it. And when I’m a famous director, it’s going to win me an Academy Award.”

Arwa laughed. “Ahh, Sara, that’s an excellent dream. I agree, on the condition that I get to choose the actor who’ll play me in the film. It’s important that she be tall, blonde, and beautiful…just like me.”

“But…you’re dark-haired and short… And, of course, beautiful.”

“Of course, Madame Sara. Beautiful, smart, and full of spit and wit, just like my grandma says.”

The two girls burst out laughing. Then they got busy imagining which famous actors would star in Sara’s future film. The bus made several stops along the way, giving Arwa and Sara a chance to eat sandwiches and have a quick coffee in the station cafeteria. When they found out from the cafeteria waitress that the address of the place they were going was on the outskirts of town, they decided to take a taxi right to the front door.

The taxi stopped at a final, isolated house that was old and falling down, in desperate need of maintenance and a coat of paint. Arwa asked the driver: “Are you sure this is the right address?”

“Of course I’m sure,” the driver said anxiously. “You want me to wait for you? It might be hard for you to get a taxi back.”

“No thanks,” Sara said. “We’ll manage.”

Arwa glanced up at the house’s second floor, where she saw an elderly woman watching her from behind a curtain. The woman seemed upset. Suddenly, Arwa and Sara heard the sound of a dog barking and a man calling, “Sit, Star. Sit!” Before Arwa could press the bell, the door opened up and a huge, bald man stood in front of them with a long gray beard, worn clothes—and a hunting rifle in his hand.

The man glared at them. “Are you from the debt-collection agency?” he yelled. “I know what liars you are. You send young girls so we think you’ve got good intentions. But then, when we open the door, boom, you hit us with a court summons. Go on, get out of here before I take a shot at you. It’s my right, since you’re trespassing on my private property. Go on, get out of here. Now!”

Arwa and Sara took several steps back, shocked by this reception. Sara whispered as she tugged on Arwa’s arm: “Come on, Arwa. Let’s get out of here before we get hurt!”

Arwa yanked her arm back. “No. I’m not going until I get an answer about the doll.” She approached the man, saying, “You’re mistaken, Sir! We’re here for a totally different reason, and we’re not with any debt-collection company. Please, just hear me out. We only need a few minutes of your time, and then we’ll go.”

Before he could answer, they heard a voice from inside the house. “Let them in, Fred. I’m curious what brought these girls all the way out to the edge of the world. Come on in. Come on!”

When Fred opened the door, Star walked up, sniffing and wiggling his tail in welcome. “Stupid dog!” Fred bellowed. “You’re supposed to be a guard dog to scare strangers off, not welcome them.”

The old woman coughed. “So. What brings you here to the end of the world? What do you want from us?”

Arwa cleared her throat. “Mrs. Wilson, I recently bought an old doll from an antique shop in Chicago. The owner of the shop, Mr. Alexey, told us that he bought the doll from a Mr. and Mrs. Wilson…and… Aren’t those your names? Anyhow, our request is simple. All we want to know is—how did you get the doll?”

“Doll!” Fred said. “What doll are you talking about?”

Arwa took out a photo of the doll and handed it to Fred. “This is the doll I’m talking about.”

Fred took a long look at the photo and shook his head. “Never seen this doll in my life.” Then he handed the picture to his wife. She was silent for a while before she nodded. “That’s the one… Don’t you remember, Fred? The attic was full of dusty old junk except for one old doll that was wrapped in white paper and stuck in a cardboard box.” The old woman gave them a look. “Is there a reward for this information?”

“Unfortunately, no,” Arwa said. “But let me explain the reason for our interest in this doll, Ma’am. This old doll belonged to my grandma—it’s the same exact doll she lost as a child, more than 50 years ago, in Jaffa, Palestine. My grandma’s now an old woman, and she’s curious about what happened to her doll from the time she lost it until she recovered it.”

“Some money might help me remember,” the old woman said, insistently.

Arwa and Sara exchanged looks. After that, Arwa pulled twenty dollars out of her bag. “I hope this is enough.”

“Enough?? Nothing would be enough for our food and medications. Nothing would be enough, but… Well, it seems like you’re a nice girl, and that you love your grandma. My grandkids never ask about me. I wish my granddaughter would ask after me, give me presents on the holidays. But… they’re my heartbreak. I barely see ‘em once a year.”

She fell silent for a moment. Then she said: “I’ll tell you about the doll because you’re good girls. When we moved into this house, almost twenty-five years ago, we found a bunch of old junk in the attic, left behind by the people who lived here before us. I remember the doll especially, because it was wrapped up so carefully and put in a white cardboard box. We needed money, and a neighbor said we could sell that and some other old junk to an antique shop. We sold the doll and all the rest of it for around $300. Seemed like a lot at the time, but clearly we made a mistake, since there must be people like your grandma who’ll pay a lot more.”

Disappointment spread across Arwa’s face. “Do you know the address of the old owner?”

“We told you we bought the house twenty-five years ago,” Fred said sarcastically. “How exactly would we remember?”

Mrs. Wilson snorted. “We don’t even remember what we ate yesterday.”

Arwa thanked Mrs. Wilson. As she walked out, the old woman said, as she closed the door behind them, “If you want to find the name and address of the old owner, you’ve got to go to a company called Renewable Real Estate at the center of town. They might be able to help you.” Then, after she shut the door, she shouted: “And never come back!”

Translation by M. Lynx Qualey. For information about translation rights, contact Al Salwa Books at rights@alsalwabooks.com.

Interviews

Adolescence, Food, and Illustrating Family History: A Talk About ‘Teta and Babcia’

No stranger to the children’s literary scene, co-founder of Hadi Badi Children & YA Lit in Arabic initiative, Miranda Beshara’s debut picture book Teta and Babcia – Kitchen Tales from Egypt, Poland, and Syria was published by al-Balsam Publishing House in 2019 and has been warmly received by those in the field as well as young first readers. Yasmine Motawy spoke to her long-time friend Miranda Beshara about the book for Arablit.org:

Beshara currently lives in Paris with her family, and her book is a response to her adolescent daughter Farah’s questions about her roots. As Farah engages her three grandmothers, Teta Aida (her Egyptian great grandmother), Babcia Monika (her Polish maternal grandmother), and Teta Afaf (her Syrian paternal grandmother) in an oral history project, these exceptional women of Egypt open “their hearts and kitchens” to their searching granddaughter.

Yasmine Motawy: Your book is a welcome addition to a fantastic set of contemporary Egyptian works that explore family history and the self, such as The Newborn, by Nadia Kamel, El Embaby’s Path, by Muhammed Abdallah, Room 304 (or How I Hid from My Dear Father for 35 Years),by Amr Ezzat, How to Mend: On Motherhood and Its Ghosts, by Iman Mersal, and the documentary Let’s Talk, by Marianne Khoury.

Your first book is autobiographical, and for children, although I and many others may argue that it is a crossover book that can be enjoyed at any age. Because of the book genre’s fluidity, I feel there is really no telling what you will do next; more autobiography or less? More children’s books or ones for a different audience?

Photograph of Miranda Beshara at her book signing at the Cairo Book Fair, courtesy of the author

Miranda Beshara: Yes, there are a lot of us swimming in the same rich sea, and I was certainly influenced by Nadia Kamel’s film project Salata Baladi when I decided to make recordings of the women in my family. While I do not know when it is that authors traditionally begin to write about themselves, the question of who I was forced itself on me when I turned 40, and I had to resolve it before I could write away from it.

Moving forward, I have a lot of ideas of where I might go next, and while nothing I plan to write is likely to be this autobiographical, I will continue to pull from threads of my own experience. I currently have ideas for a YA book, a silent book, and a picture book, all of which speak to me and fill an important topical gap in the Arabic children’s book market. The topics I tackle will largely determine the initial audience I target, but even this is liable to change when I start writing.

YM: The book that the American University in Cairo has just selected as the 2020 Common Reading Experience (CRE), Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me, is also a poetic project, of a father writing to his 15-year-old son about what it means to be a Black man in the United States. It was born of the need to prepare his son for a world shaped by privilege and by the reality of racism. How did your own project develop, and how did it find its home in the picture book form? And, in making the personal public, and suitable for children: What did you discard, and what did you keep?

MB: The book started as a family documentation project that produced a great deal of audio and visual material from having recorded hours of interviews with all three grandmothers. This made the book trailerwhich Tammy Saad produced, very special. When it was all collected, I began to consider how Farah might be able to retell and preserve these stories herself, and it was then that I was encouraged by friends to make the project a book. It took me a while to find my voice, and I constantly asked myself: would Farah tell this particular anecdote? Would this be something she cared about? As she was twelve years old when the project began, I wondered what kind of things she would want to say about her grandmothers.

When I had some confidence in the text I had drafted, I began to rely heavily on sharing my work with people whose opinion I trusted, to make sure that details and stories that seemed perfectly clear or highly relevant to me, were in fact so. At that point, I showed publisher Balsam Saad the draft and she was enthusiastic about the idea of a book that is part documentation, part food memoir, part travelogue, part picture book and part middle-grade book. Working with her, in her capacity as an experienced editor, was very valuable, and our journey with the book was characterized by constant dialogue. We decided together that the text be written in Modern Standard Arabic, but I insisted on touches of colloquial dialect in the dialogue to convey the voices of these very distinct characters as they were in the audio files of the interviews.

At some point, I wondered if I needed to fictionalize the story and change the names of the characters, but I decided I wanted to honor them with this book, and therefore, to preserve their privacy, I obviously did not tell everything.

YM: Last week, I wrote about a very interesting discussionthat took place in the field of children’s literature that touched on the relationship between the author and illustrator. You worked with an illustrator who had never done children’s books before. How did you and Heba Khalifa agree on illustrations, particularly as they had a great role to play in defining the genre and audience of this very open book?

MB: Balsam sent the first chapter to several great illustrators and we patiently waited to see what they would make of it, recognizing that the illustrator would be an integral partner in defining this book. When I saw Heba’s vision, I knew right away that this was it. I had loved her visual interpretations of family and womanhood from before, this would be her first time working on a children’s book, and so she approached the project with great openness.

She made the extra effort to meet my in-laws and to spend time with my family, photographing their things and immersing herself into their lives to capture their essence. She often built stories around artefacts, turning them into complete visual narratives. For instance, the details she created around my kitchen pottery that comes from all four countries that I am connected to, and my mother-in-law’s antiquated but impeccable stove and fridge really brought their talismanic properties to life on the page.

She also helped me in my negotiations with omitting and presenting the personal to the public that you were asking about. For instance, on the page with my grandparents is a photograph of an aloe plant, which symbolizes some discord in their marriage at that point. I decided not to delve into the complexity of the characters’ marriages in general, but this marriage was initially unusual because my grandfather had been engaged to marry my grandmother’s older sister, with whom he was very much in love. She became ill and died, and he married her younger sister with a bit of a broken heart. I felt this story might have required a different book, and the stories were coming so fast and thick, as reality tends to do, that I felt it might not work in such a short work of fiction. Heba left this symbol of the story on the page, and I found it very beautiful.

YM: Projects such as these are often accused of being nostalgic for an Egypt gone by, rather than reflecting the reality of most Egyptian families, and that food is an easy and neutral cultural marker we resort to when don’t want to get political. What do you say to this?

MB: First of all: food is not shallow! Food is very complex, as are traditions around food. Like most people, food is at the center of my family gatherings, and, as such, it conjures occasions and people and memories.

Secondly, nostalgic or not, I have to say that in this story of a multicultural family, Egypt is the strong glue that binds us all together, and the strongest identity we have in our family is the Egyptian one. Say what you will, Egyptian culture has historically been a welcoming and permeable one, with a magical capacity to expand to make people feel at home. In a time where ugly polarizing discourse is on the rise, voices that highlight the diversity of Egyptians are important. I am not naive to the fact that we have probably been very lucky in belonging to a family where differences in religion and ethnicity are accepted. I know that while not everyone has this, I know of others who have been blessed in the same way, and want to show that very real experience as a possibility. I do not feel obliged to take it upon myself to depict either the mainstream or gritty realities or nothing at all as a matter of accuracy, I find that demand itself to be rather myopic.

YM:This book speaks of an attempt to connect with a girl at a very difficult age. Was it?

MB: We live in Paris, and, for the longest time, when Farah would say she was Egyptian and Syrian, the Arab children at school would not believe her, and when she began to say she was Polish, the French kids did not believe her. The need to belong fully to a group is very pressing at this age, and this project was a way to perhaps show her that identity was more complicated than that. While the book was not a magic bullet, I do feel subtle changes in her, like an increased identification with her values rather than with her identity.

It was an important exercise for me as well, because the way she asked questions of her grandmothers as we recorded brought out things I never knew, and the intergenerational interaction was really surprising. Hearing different versions of stories, as told by each of the grandmothers separately, was eye opening. It was also an occasion for me to witness some of her raw feelings that she hides so well, as is maybe natural for a girl that age.

Making the book has also allowed me to get to know these formidable women who play such key roles in my life, as women, and this has transformed my relationships with them. It is a little sad that it was only when I turned 40 that I thought to do this.

YM: This is for Arablit.org, so I have to ask: are there any translations in the pipeline?

MB: No plans, but I feel the book is very well suited for translation into Polish, and into French and English obviously. There is a strong established tradition of Polish children’s books that I would be honored to be part of, and I have not seen a similar book in Polish yet.

Most books that are published about Arabs living in France are focused on identity and tradition, and while I support the focalization of diversity, and amplification of these voices, I also feel the need for other books that just “are,” such as the poetic, imaginative, high-quality books that the bilingual publisher Le port a jauni produces, that focus on things such as the beauty and playfulness of the Arabic language.

YM: I have tasted the delicious food of many of the characters in this story, including yours, and you are my most generous and accurate recipe-sharing friend, but still; how did you go about collecting the recipes in your book?

MB: While my mother’s pierogi recipe is in the book, it should be said that my mother does not like to cook! She was a young rebel, and the kitchen was her mother’s domain and so she largely steered clear of it. So when she dictated the recipe to me, she also suggested that I call my cousin in Poland to verify it, as she had not made it in a while. The biggest challenge with all the grandmothers, however, was that they did not use measurements at all in the kitchen! They said things like, “a dash of this,” and “a dollop of that.” So for the next recipe, I sat down with my aunt and asked her to faithfully transcribe my grandmother’s recipe for me. I learnt the fatta recipe from my mother-in-law many years ago, so I only had to check that one with her. I had to execute all the recipes myself again in order to verify the measurements and write them down for the book. The process alarmed me a little because I wondered how these recipes would be preserved given these women’s intuitive measuring, but maybe that is another book.

Yasmine Motawy is an educator and a children and young adult literature scholar, translator, editor, and consultant. She is a senior instructor at the American University in Cairo.