Chapter Books · Illustrators · Interviews · Middle Grade · Picture Books · Young Adult

The Book Conversation: Hend Saeed interviews Arabic kid lit authors and illustrators

Literary consultant Hend Saeed introduces Hiwar al-Kutub/The Book Conversation, her growing series of recorded video interviews with Arabic children’s and YA authors…

By Hend Saeed

Last year, I started my book conversation program via Zoom, aiming to shed light on what’s new in Arabic literature, in both adult and children’s books. I have interviewed several writers so far who, without intention, are all women. We’ve also shared an introduction for a special new competition created by Intelaq Mohammed Ali.

The links to the interviews on YouTube can be found below, some in Arabic and some in English.

Sonia Nimr                                                     

Sonia Nimr (سونيا نمر) is a Palestinian Children’s and Young Adult author, storyteller and academic. Her books are inspired by Palestinain folklore. She won the 2014 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, in the Young Adult category, for her book Wondrous Journey in Strange Lands (translated into English by Marcia Lynx Qualey, published by Interlink).

In our interview, Sonia talked about her new YA book طائر الرعد – الجزء الثاني (Thunderbird 2), the second book of her Thunderbird trilogy.

The first book of the trilogy was shortlisted for the 2017 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in the Young Adult category and has been translated into English by Marcia Lynx Qualey. The third book is not yet published. More about Thunderbird on ArabLit.

Watch the full interview – in Arabic: 

Hend Saeed interviews Palestinian author Sonia Nimr (in Arabic)

Naseeba Alozaibi                                          

Naseeba Alozaibi (نسيبة العوزيبي) is an Emirati children’s and YA writer. Her book My Mother is a Gorilla and my Father is an Elephant won the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2017 and her book Frown (تكشيرة) was shortlisted for the Etisalat Children’s Book of the Year (CBOY) category in 2013. 

Naseeba Alozaibi talked about her new book The Superhero (البطل الخارق). It is about a hero who loses his superhero powers and abilities, and who tries to find a cure, but when no doctor in the city is able to cure him, he decides to leave the city and the people who love him. What will happen to him and will he get his superhero power back?

Watch the full interview – in Arabic:

Hend Saeed interviews Emirati author Naseeba Alozaibi

Taghreed Najjar

Taghreed Najjar (تغريد النجار) is a Palestinian-Jordanian Children’s and YA author and founder of Al Salwa Books. She has written over 50 children and young adult books, some of which have been translated into different languages including English. She has been awarded the Etisalat Award for Arabic children’s literature twice and has been shortlisted for the prize three times.

Taghreed Najjar talked about several books about Palestine that are published by Al Salwa Books:

  • The Memory Factory (مصنع الذكريات) by Ahlam Bsharat. There was an interview with Ahlam Bsharat about The Memory Factory at ArabLit.
  • Sitt al-Kul (ست الكل) by Taghreed Najjar. Excerpt published by ArabLit, translated by Elisabeth Jaquette
  • Mystery of the Falcon Eye (لغز عين الصقر) by Taghreed Najjar, which was shortlisted for the Etisalat Award for Children’s Literature in 2014. There’s a sample from the book here on ArabKidLitNow, translated by Joseph Devine
  • Whose Doll is This? (لمن هذه الدميةby Taghreed Najjar. This novel won the Etisalat Award, Young Adult Category, in 2019. More about the book at ArabLit

Watch the full interview – in Arabic:

Hend Saeed interviews Palestinian-Jordanian author and publisher Taghreed Najjar

Samar Mahfouz Barraj                

Samar Mahfouz Barraj (سمر محفوظ براج) is a Lebanese children’s writer. She has published around 60 children’s books. Her book When My Friend Got Sick won the second prize for Children’s Book Award at the Beirut International Book Fair 2011, and the Arab Thought Foundation’s Kitabi Award in 2013. It was also shortlisted for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2011.

Samar Barraj talked about her books The young Chef (الطباخ الصغير), The Fat Story (قصة دهون)  and the new books in the Waseem series.

The Fat Story, shortlisted for the Al Multaqa Prize for Arabic children’s book publishers in 2021. Miss Fat and her friends enjoy their lives inside the body of a person who doesn’t move and loves eating. But when he starts following a good diet and exercise, life changes for them. What happens to Miss Fat and her friends?

The Young Chef is about a young boy who loves cooking and helps his mother in the kitchen.

The full interview – in Arabic:

Interview with Lebanese children’s book author Samar Mahfouz Barraj

Sahar Shehade                                              

Sahar Shehade (سحر شحادي) is a Lebanese children’s writer and storyteller. She has her own YouTube channel for children’s stories and has participated in a number of storytelling festivals.

Sahar talked about her new book I Can’t Breathe (أكاد أختنق), which won Al Multaqa Prize for Children Book Publishers in 2021. Wissam is a hyperactive child who can’t sit still. After his younger brother was injured while they were playing, his father tells him he has to sit still for twenty minutes, which is very difficult for him to do, but when he finds the encyclopedia on the bookshelf and starts reading, he loses himself in the book.

Watch the interview – in Arabic:

Interview with Lebanese children’s book author Sahar Shehade

Sahar Naja Mahfouz                                      

Sahar Naja Mahfouz (سحر نجا محفوظ) is a Lebanese children’s writer based in UAE. She has written a number of children’s books and stories for the TV series Iftah Ya Simsim, the Arabic version of Sesame Street. 

Sahar talked about her new self-published book My Mother’s Scent (عطر أمي). This is the story of a young girl who misses her mother’s special scent at school but then finds it on her scarf. Sahar also talked about her journey in self-publishing.

The interview – in Arabic:

Interview with UAE-based Lebanese children’s book author Sahar Naja Mahfouz

Intelaq Mohammed Ali                                           

Intelaq Mohammed Ali (انتلاق محمد علي) is an Iraqi children’s writer and illustrator, and founder of the OUKA Award for Children’s Book Illustrators. She has won a number of international prizes for her illustration work and was a judge in the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2017. She’s on Instagram here.

Intelaq talked about the OUKA Award for illustration. Intelaq wanted to create a book that combines all the best Arab book illustrators, so she set up a competition in which new and experienced illustrators can participate with their published and unpublished work.

You can find out more about the competition here (in Arabic). In the interview, Intelaq talks about the competition and its aims.

Hend Saeed interviews Iraqi children’s book author and illustrator Intelaq Mohammed Ali

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Hend Saeed is an Arabic literature & cultural consultant, and literary translator. She has published articles, reviews and translations in a number of publications in Arabic and English, and published a collection of short stories. She is curator and presenter of the YouTube series Hiwar al-Kutub/Book Conversation.

Picture Books

Sabir’s Paradise: Author Amal Alaboud introduces her Arabic-English bilingual picture book

In a shared blog post with World Kid Lit, today we welcome Saudi children’s book author Dr. Amal Alaboud to tell us about her debut picture book, Sabir’s Paradise/جنة صابر, published as a bilingual edition in Arabic and English.

Sabir’s Paradise, by Dr. Amal Alaboud, illustrated by Nour Altouba (Nour Publishing)

WKL: Congratulations on the publication of Sabir’s Paradise. What was the inspiration for the book and did you develop the story in Arabic or in English first?

Dr. Amal Alaboud: I got the idea for ‘Sabir’s Paradise’ on a snowy day in Upstate New York, back in 2016. I was headed to the Writing for Children class instructed by the amazing Liz Rosenberg. As I pushed forwards along the street and through the icy blizzard, I had an idea! A fantasy folk tale. Something for children that related to my homeland, Saudi Arabia, and so, the snowstorm became a desert storm and – as if by magic, little Sabir the camel was born.

Time passed and I all but forgot about my story idea. However, whilst rummaging through my old manuscripts during lockdown 2020, I came across the draft for ‘Sabir’s Paradise’. As I leafed through the pages it sparked something from within, and I knew that I had to share Sabir’s adventures with the world.

Liz had worked with me, giving me invaluable written feedback. I worked on developing the writing and it wasn’t long before I realized that this story had the perfect dynamic to be translated into a bilingual book. I translated it into Arabic myself and sent it to Nour Publishing house. They welcomed ‘Sabir’s Paradise’ with open arms and in December my book hit the shelves. The book featured at the acclaimed International Sharjah Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates. 

WKL: What’s the story about? What themes might come up when parents are reading the story with their children? And is there a reason you chose the name Sabir for the main character?

AA: This cautionary tale about a little camel who gets lost in the desert appeals to children by igniting their imagination and thirst for adventure. Creating a link between cultures and languages that all children will love.

I want ‘Sabir’s Paradise’ to serve as a beacon of hope during stormy, dark days. Sabir, meaning ‘patience’ in Arabic, shows that if you stay calm and collected, you will reach your paradise. Hammam and Tammam, Sabir’s magical desert guides, show that you are never alone. That if you have a resolute attitude and act maturely in difficult circumstances, all will be well.

It is my hope that children will take on these values, and my book will act as a reassurance to both parent and child that they have the strength to achieve anything they put their mind to, be it a fairytale adventure or learning a new language.

WKL: You wrote the story in the US and it’s published and distributed from UAE. Who do you envisage as the audience for this bilingual picture book? And why did you choose a bilingual format for that audience?

The audience consists of various groups. Some are native English speakers who want to learn Arabic and explore Arabic cultural themes, like the desert guards and camels. There are also native Arabic speakers who would like to teach their kids English. The story is international; it appeals to people worldwide. 

I made the story bilingual because I want as many readers as possible to enjoy reading it. There are very few publishing houses that publish bilingual children’s books in the Middle East, even though this idea is relatively popular nowadays. 

WKL: Some parents won’t be familiar with reading a book that contains two languages, in this case Arabic and English side by side. How might parents and children approach reading the book with their children? How can picture books be part of a bilingual household? 

The style of my book unfolds as a way for both parents (or teachers) and children to enjoy the story together as well as being used as a learning tool. The book’s beautiful illustrations walk hand in hand with the words. Encouraging children to naturally tell the story in whatever language they choose.

Parents can also use the illustrations to question their child about the story. Each illustration is related to the words on the page. This builds language learning and is also a fun way to make sure children have a comprehensive understanding of the story.

The words within ‘Sabir’s Paradise’ are carefully chosen for language learners. I used simple emotions and descriptions to appeal to young minds. The English text is always to the left of the book, whilst the Arabic is on the right. This allows parents of either language to teach their child without having to change books or turn to the back like some other bilingual stories.

WKL: Where there any particular challenges in translating the text into Arabic or with editing the English? 

There were no challenges in translating the text into Arabic, as it’s my native language. However, when the first edition was printed, some typos were unnoticed previously. Unfortunately, because I don’t live in the UAE, where the story was published, I couldn’t travel there. There were travel restrictions at the time, so I couldn’t see the book’s sample before it was officially published! But these typos are corrected in the second edition, which will be released in June 2021.

WKL: How did you come to work with the illustrator? 

The publisher sent me illustration samples drawn by different illustrators. I chose the style of the illustration that was creative and went best with my story. Then, the publisher set up a WhatsApp group and introduced us. The illustrator, Nour Altouba, lives in Germany, so this was the easiest way to communicate clearly and effectively. He sent a sketch of all the book’s illustrations, then I provided some details. For example, we discussed types of desert plants and how I imagined Hammam and Tammam would look. The final illustrations were vibrant and joyful.

WKL: Do you have plans for any more children’s books, as author or translator? 

Of course! Writing and translating children’s books is my passion, and I look forward to many future projects.

Thank you for sharing Sabir’s Paradise with us!

***

Where you can buy Sabir’s Paradise

(and other Arabic children’s books!)

More about Nour Publishing

Nour Publishing is a specialist children’s publisher based in Sharjah, UAE. The founder and owner is Nour Arab, a Palestinian Canadian writer. Arab is an author of more than 20 bilingual children books in both Arabic and English. The press has published books by Emirati authors Fatima Al-aleeli, Hiba Al-tuniji, Fatima Al-Mazrouie, Safia Al-Shehi, Kuwaiti author Ghofran Al-Jaber, Dr. Fadia Daas and Faeda Sabha from Jordan, Saudi author Dr. Amal Alaboud, Dubai-based American author-illustrator, Ellie Szymanska, Lebanese author Maya Taher, Nour Arab, and a cookery book by Emirati chef Badya Khairedeen

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Dr. Amal Alaboud

Dr. Amal Alaboud is an assistant professor of Translation Studies at Taif University. She’s a children’s stories writer and translator. Her works have been translated into Spanish, French and Chinese. 

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Chapter Books · Middle Grade · Picture Books · Young Adult

#TranslateThis: 10 Great Palestinian Books for Young Readers

By M Lynx Qualey

The twentieth-century renaissance in Arabic literature for young readers owes a lot to Palestine, starting with the pioneering children’s publishing house Dar El Fata El Arab, launched in Beirut in 1974 and animated, in part, by a politics of liberation that began with the youngest readers.

As Hassan Khan wrote in an essay-interview on the publishing house for Bidoun, the publishing house, which was “staffed by artists, designers, and writers devoted to bringing attention to the Palestinian cause,” “produced some of the most visually striking and progressive children’s books in the region.”

Prominent Palestinian novelists and short-story writer, such as Ghassan Kanafani and Mahmoud Shukair, also recognized the importance of writing radical books for children. Kanafani himself wrote two texts published by Dar El Fata El Arab: Atfal Ghassan Kanafani (Ghassan Kanafani’s Children) and al-Qindeel al-Sahir (The Watchful Lamp), both published posthumously.

Dar El Fata El Arab closed in 1993, before the current surge in creative attention to Arabic literature for young readers. Yet Palestinian artists, writers, publishers, and librarians continued to grow an innovative and loving literature for young people. The award-winning Tamer Institute, founded in 1989, has been an important hub for producing and distributing Palestinian literature for young readers.

As librarian Elisabet Risberg has noted on ArabLit, “the Tamer Institute’s efforts to promote reading have created a strong foundation for Palestinian children’s books.” She writes:

It was 2009 when Warshah Filastin lil-Kitab (The Palestine Writing Workshop) was founded. At first, it really was a single workshop. But from it arose the idea of founding a support organization for Palestinian writers and illustrators. Today’s Warshah is very much about creating possibilities for children’s-book creators to develop, and support the economic conditions for the creation of literature.

With such a wealth of Palestinian literature for young readers available in Arabic, it is disappointing to see so little in English translation. There are a few books that have become available in recent years: poet and children’s-book author Maya Abu Alhayyat’s The Blue Pool of Questions (ill. Hassan Manasrah) was translated by Hanan Awad and published by Penny Candy Books; a few of award-winning Palestinian-Jordanian author Taghreed Najjar’s picture books are in translation, although disappointingly none of her young-adult novels; Ahlam Bsharat’s YA novel Code Name: Butterfly was translated by Nancy Roberts and her Trees for the Absentees by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland; and Sonia Nimr’s thrilling Etisalat Prize-winning Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands is also available in translation.

But this barely scratches the surface of the fantastic works available in Arabic by Palestinian writers.

The books recommended below are not all books about Palestine, but they are all books by Palestinian authors. Any interested publishers can contact info@arablit.org. We will do our best to provide samples, put you in touch with rights-holders, and whatever else we can do to get these books into translation to English or other world languages.

PICTURE BOOKS

بولقش (Bulqash)

يارا بامية (Yara Bamieh)

This is a fabulous and fantastic story about Bulqash’s  visit to an island full of wild rabbits that takes place on a certain day each year — the day of the first spring flower. Since it happens each year, they all wait longingly for the day, just as a child might wait for Christmas. It’s a story about longing, about play, and about what a source of amazement life can be, in its aspects both mundane and unique. Yara Bamieh plays masterfully with words and pictures, and the fact that Bulqash won the Etisalat Award for Best Production is no surprise.

Recommender: Elisabet Risberg

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ذاكرة منصور (Mansour’s Memory)

محمد خالد و ديالا زادة (Mohamed Khaled and Diyala Zada)

Mansour has a unique ability to recall, but the memory police are after him, trying to confiscate his memories of the past. You can find a video from inside this book on the illustrator’s Facebook page and many enthusiastic reviews online.

Recommender: Miranda Beshara, Hadi Badi

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فكر بغيرك (Think of Others)

محمود درويش (Mahmoud Darwish)

WINNER of 2018 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, illustrations category, this picture book brings together the moving and popular poem “Think of Others” by Mahmoud Darwish with charming illustrations by award-winning Egyptian-Canadian illustrator Sahar Abdallah.

Recommenders: ArabLidKitNow! collective and Miranda Beshara, Hadi Badi

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فلفول في بيت الغول (Filful in the Troll’s House )

مايا أبو الحيات واناستاسيا قرواني (Maya Abu Al-Hayyat and Anastasia Qarwani)

Falful is a little mouse who lives with al-Ghul — the troll — and his three troll siblings: Maltoub, who’s afraid of the dark, Banurah, who’s always chewing gum, and Sansur, who’s always roaring with anger, causing havoc, and terrifying poor Falful. Should he be quiet as a mouse, as Maltub suggests, or should he yell back, as Banurah says? In the end, Falful asks al-Ghul for help, and the story ends just as well as any magic story can.

Recommender: Elisabet Risberg

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نصائح غير مهمة للقارئ الصغير (Unnecessary Advice for the Young Reader )

أنس أبو رحمة ولبنى طه (Anas Aburahma and Lubna Taha)

Although unnecessary, this advice can be just as amazing! Consider the following:

Do not read when you are hungry.

Do not read when you smell freshly baked bread.

Invite your favorite character to dinner with your family.

Don’t ask to become friends with your favorite author on Facebook.

Choose any book, but especially the one that you find in your grandfather’s room, or out on the street.

Don’t tell anyone what book you’re reading until you’ve read it.

Read to your dog!

If I had to pick one piece of favorite advice from all this, it would be the advice to google a photo of one of my favorite writers, memorize the picture, and draw it. The book includes a drawing of Mohieddin El Labbad (1940-2010), a great Egyptian illustrator, of whose illustrations I am inordinately fond. 

Recommender: Elisabet Risberg

CHAPTER BOOKS

مغامرة عجيبة غريبة (A Strange Adventure)

تغريد النجار و شارلوت شما (By Taghreed Najjar and Charlotte Shama)

While Hind is examining the contents of a straw basket she got as a present from her Aunt, she is suddenly transported to a strange world where thread spools talk and a lobster plays a musical instrument. But all is not well in this beautiful place. There is an impending danger in the air. Will Hind and her friends be able to save the day? An exciting story that is full of fantasy and adventure, told through the lens of Palestinian tatreez embroidery.

Recommender: Susanne Abu Ghaida, PhD in Education from Glasgow University

MIDDLE GRADE

ثلاثية طائر الرعد (Thunderbird Trilogy)

سونيا نمر (Sonia Nimr)

The Thunderbird books are a time-travel fantasy led by a young teen girl, Noor, who was orphaned after her parents died in a plane crash. Only Noor’s grandmother continues to show her love as strange things happen around her, particularly the strange fires that burst out when she gets upset. When her grandmother dies, Noor is left with a ring and a few hints about her parents’ research. She’s joined by a djinn that’s taken the form of a cat, Sabeeka, from whom she learns about the danger facing both our world and the world of the djinn. She then must set out across space and time — and even travel past the wall to the world of the djinn and other creatures — in this hugely exciting fantasy adventure series that takes place between Ramallah and Jerusalem in different historical periods. A radical book series that will also thrill and delight.

Recommender: ArabKidLitNow! collective

YOUNG ADULT

ست الكل (Sitt al-Kol, or Against the Tide)

تغريد النجار (Taghreed Najjar)

Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2013, this book follows 15-year-old Yusra, who is faced with a choice. Either she accepts her new life as it is, or she defies society’s expectations to do something no woman in Gaza has ever done before. After the tragic death of her elder brother by an Israeli rocket, and an unfortunate accident that leaves her father paralyzed and bound to his wheelchair, Yusra’s family is forced to beg for handouts from their neighbors. Between her family’s struggles and the restrictions of life in occupied Palestine, Yusra feels like the walls are closing in on her. Then she has an idea: she decides to fix up her father’s fishing boat and take up his trade to become the first and only fisherwoman in Gaza. More, including a sample by Elisabeth Jaquette.

Recommender: ArabKidLitNow! collective

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تنين بيت لحم (The Dragon of Bethlehem)

هدى الشوا (Huda El Shuwa)

Huda El Shuwa’s 2017 YA novel Dragon of Bethlehem is built around a 16-year-old who lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp just south of Bethlehem. 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. This wonderful, fantastical tale follows the bullied young Khidr who meets a dragon that changes his life. More, including a sample by M Lynx Qualey.

Recommender: Miranda Beshara, Hadi Badi

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لغز عين الصقر (Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye)

تغريد النجار (Taghreed Najjar)

Shortlisted for the Etisalat Award for Children’s Literature Award in 2014, this YA mystery follows Ziad and his family. 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. More, including a sample by Joseph Devine.

Recommender: ArabKidLitNow! collective

Uncategorized

How To Talk About Palestine With Kids: A Reading List from Hadi Badi

The team at Hadi Bad has put together a short list of resources — books, websites, and films — to help parents and educators as they talk with children about Palestine.

None of the Arabic children’s books on the list has yet been translated to English, although samples of several of them — including Hooda Shawa’s Dragon of Bethlehem and Taghreed Najjar’s Whose Doll is This?, Sitt al-Kol, and Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye — are available on this website.

Fatima Sharafeddine’s moving في مدينتي حرب (In My City, There’s War) has been translated to French and Dutch. The Hadi Badi team also suggests Sharafeddine’s العمة زيون وشجرة الزيتون (Auntie Zayoun and the Zaytoun Tree).

Hooda Shawa’s beautiful picture book سماء سامية الملونة (Samia’s Colored Sky) is part of a series that focuses on the work of Palestinian artists. The series also includes Ibtisam Barakat’s award-winning الفتاة الليلكية (The Lilac Girl, 2019).

To this list, we would also add Sonia Nimr’s brilliant طائر الرعد (Thunderbird) trilogy, which foregrounds a time-travel fantasy, but always has contemporary Palestine in its sights.

Publishers who want to know more about these titles can email info@arablit.org.

For those looking for English-language titles, children’s literature media and culture MA student Ala’ Qaraman also suggested Young Palestinians Speak: Living Under Occupation by Anne-Marie Young and Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood and Balcony on the Moon: Coming of Age in Palestine by Ibtisam Barakat.

Uncategorized

An Excerpt from Mahmoud Shukair’s ‘Me, My Friend, and the Donkey’

A humorous donkey detective novel for young adults, set in and around Jerusalem:

By Anam Zafar

For its 70th issue, Banipal magazine will honor the beloved Mahmoud Shukair, one of Palestine’s leading writers. His portrait will grace the cover, painted by Iraqi artist Sattar Kawoosh, and the magazine will include a special feature on his contribution to contemporary Arabic literature. Here at ArabLit, we celebrate the acclaimed, award-winning writer with a sample from his 2016 YA novel, Me, My Friend, and the Donkey. In 2018, the novel was selected by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) for its honor list of the top 100 children’s novels from around the world.

Me, My Friend, and the Donkey is a humorous detective adventure for teens. Set in and around Jerusalem, it tells the story of Mahmoud (the narrator) and Muhammad (his friend) as they try to find Muhammad’s stolen donkey. Inspired by detective novels and adventure movies, the pair assemble a group of friends to solve this mystery—some of them adopting code names, as seen in the sample. They do—eventually—find the donkey. Years later, Muhammad has moved to the US, and the pair still reminisce about donkeys whenever they meet or speak on the phone. Muhammad invites Mahmoud to visit him in the US; however, Mahmoud’s visa application is rejected. The novel is inspired by the real-life story of one of Shukair’s childhood friends.

An excerpt, in my translation:

10

A few weeks later, me and my friend Muhammad had the plan well underway. We were working on the investigation as hard as we could, inspecting a whole bunch of donkeys, mules, and horses, questioning all kinds of men, and looking everywhere we could think of. But we still hadn’t found Muhammad’s donkey.

One day, the vegetable seller told us she couldn’t complete her mission. She looked sorry, and explained that her eyes were tired out from studying all the people and donkeys passing through the market. We respected her decision.

“Don’t worry, we can still count on Layla and the others,” we said, after thanking her for working with us. 

11

Just about two hours before sunset, Ocean Whale came running up to us. We noticed he was completely worn out from running so fast. If only we could have used a carrier pigeon instead! We’d really hoped to use one, to send news to each other. But when we realized nobody used birds to communicate anymore, we didn’t dwell on the idea for long.

Ocean Whale had come to tell us that he, Lightning Bolt, and Forest Lion had captured a man with a dark birthmark on his face, just like the thief’s. It wasn’t above his right eyebrow, but they’d decided the birthmark in itself was enough proof. As we listened, me and my friend Muhammad looked around the Friday market: there was no one around except a few cattle sellers.

We asked Ocean Whale how they’d managed to capture the man.

“We were following him, and he seemed suspicious of us. So we got closer and surrounded him, and Forest Lion said: ‘Would you like to introduce yourself?’ And the man scowled and said: ‘What do you want from me?’”

After seeing pure evil in the man’s eyes, Forest Lion decided to play a trick on him and said: “I, Forest Lion, mean you no harm. I am simply inviting you for a drink at the coffee shop.”

Ocean Whale went on: “Then the man followed us to the coffee shop, and when we got there, Forest Lion whispered in my ear to come and find you straightaway.”

The three of us sprinted along the pavement to the coffee shop. To my friend Muhammad’s surprise, that man was not the thief. Muhammad apologized and let him finish his drink. The man accepted the apology, thanked Forest Lion for the coffee, and left, seeming happy and a bit relieved.

We looked at each other awkwardly. Then we left the coffee house, too. Layla was standing at the market entrance, camera in hand—she wouldn’t let any donkey walk past without getting at least one shot of the animal and its owner. Glancing at her, Forest Lion said, “That was just our first try. Lots more will follow.” There was a proud swagger in his step, as if he was now a seasoned detective.

“Yeah, all you need now is to open your own prison, for all the people you’ll capture!” we said, jokingly. 

Forest Lion nodded with determination. It seemed Lightning Bolt and Ocean Whale believed in what he’d said, too. Me and my friend Muhammad exchanged a look—we weren’t as convinced as the others. Then we decided to split up and go home before sunset. And that is what we did. 

12

The next morning, on our way to school, Muhammad told me about the strange dream he’d had the night before.

“In the dream, we were going to Alhambra Cinema with Rahaf and Fadiya. We were excited because it was a Jeff Chandler movie. We’d already seen a few clips and couldn’t wait to watch the whole thing. So, one night, when it started playing, the four of us went to see it.

“Then, the surprise, the part that confused me the most: I saw my donkey coming toward me! He asked if he could come with us to the movie. I asked him, ‘How can you be here? Weren’t you stolen by a thief in broad daylight?’ He said, ‘Yes, I was. But, when night falls, I can go wherever I please. Near and far.’

“That really cheered me up, and I hugged him. But told him I was worried the ticket collector wouldn’t let him in. What he said next confused me even more. He told me he was a Jeff Chandler fan, too, and that he just had to watch him beating the bad guys. So I promised I’d make a deal with the ticket collector.

“The next strange thing is that the ticket collector was happy to see him. He even said it was no problem, the cinema had seats especially for donkeys. I was amazed. Then all of us—even the donkey—walked into the movie theater!”

I was amazed, too. “Your dream is a good omen,” I told my friend Muhammad. “We’ll find the donkey. I can feel it.”

“Let’s hope so,” my friend said. “God knows it’s all I want.”

13

Our sixth meeting was held one afternoon in Forest Lion’s house. As usual, his mother brought us cups of sweet, sugary tea. After thanking her, we waited for her to leave so we could continue the meeting. But she stayed standing there, quietly watching us. 

Eventually, she spoke. “You’re all going after this poor thief and forgetting who the real crooks are.”

Her words surprised us. We fired question after question at her: Who were the ‘real crooks’? How did we go after them? How would we know who they were?

“You’ll understand when you’re older,” she said. 

“How do you know the man who took the donkey is poor?” we asked.

“Oh, so you think he’s rich!?” she replied, sarcastically. “Maybe his children were hungry!” 

“So, because his children were hungry, that makes it okay?” Muhammad asked.

“No,” she said, “but a hungry man is an angry man. You need to understand that.”

She threw her words at us and left. They fluttered around the room like a flock of pigeons. We stared at each other. The way we felt, we couldn’t continue the meeting. 

“Don’t worry about her,” said Forest Lion, shaking us out of our thoughts. “She only said that because she’s mad at me.”

“Why’s she mad at you?”

“I got a bad grade on the math test.”

We told him how sorry we were, and then went back to the meeting. But we couldn’t shift the feeling that this mysterious world was full of paradoxes. 

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Mahmoud Shukair was born in Jerusalem in 1941. His novel Praise for the Women in the Family was shortlisted in 2016 for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression. His book for young adults, al-Quds madinati al-ula (Jerusalem, My First City, 2014), was shortlisted for the 2015 Communication for Children’s Literature Award. Shukair has authored forty-five books, six television series, and four plays. His stories have been translated into several languages, including English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. After spending time in Beirut, Amman and Prague, he now lives in Jerusalem. 

Anam Zafar (anamzafar.comtranslates from Arabic and French. Most recently, she was a mentee on the National Centre for Writing’s 2020/21 Emerging Translators Mentorship programme. She is on The Linguist magazine’s Editorial Board, and volunteers for the World Kid Lit online initiative. 

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Seeking publisher. More information about the book available upon request. Contact Anam Zafar via info@arablit.org or through her website, anamzafar.com.