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.

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