Interviews

On Launching Liblib: A Children’s Publishing House for Arabic Dialects

By M Lynx Qualey

Late last month, the new Liblib publishing house made their first public appearance on Facebook, with organizers announcing it as “The newest children’s publishing house on the block for Spoken Arabic Dialects.”

The publishing house, which has been several years in the making, aims to be “a world-class children’s colloquial Arabic publishing house, instilling a love of reading by providing inspiring, inclusive, accessible and diverse stories for Arabic speaking children everywhere.”

The three founders are Nada Sabet, an entrepreneur, theatre director, and arts development expert; Mariam Ali-Puttergill, an editor, translator, writer, and educator; and Muhab Wahby, an aspiring board game designer and business intelligence analyst.

They will be launching their first slate of children’s board books on Kickstarter in early 2022. Until then, they can be found on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @LibLibPublishing. Nada Sabet answered a few questions about the startup for ArabLit.

When did you decide not just that there needed to be a publisher bringing out a range of fun and attractive children’s books in colloquial Arabics, but that you three wanted to commit yourselves to doing it? 

Nada Sabet: I had decided in 2018 to set this up, and I had planned to start in 2020… but we know what happened then.

Mariam and Muhab joined this year. Although, to be honest, Muhab and I did start speaking about the project earlier, we were not sure how he would join or in what capacity until i moved to the UK. Muhab was struggling because of the lack of entertaining Egyptian material out there to try and introduce his children to Arabic and did so through a board game he had designed. At some point on a walk through Oxfordshire we decided to partner up, as it made sense, and the rest is history.

Mariam was a lot more spontaneous; when I asked her, she immediately responded “YES… I’ve always dreamed of doing that!”

So here we are, knee-deep already.

What resources (if any) are there for startup kid-lit publishers, especially those working in Arabic colloquials? What resources should there be, to foster more children’s publishing projects?

NS: There isn’t much in Arabic. The book fairs have a lot of resources for those willing and wanting to diligently go through seminars, master classes, and network. The publishing community has been very generous with me so far.

You have to know what you want and go for it… like anything else, really. Incorporating a company, finance, marketing, etc. All that exists online in multiple formats, and for free as well as paid.

There is a lot to be done in children’s publishing, especially in Arabic. The way it runs as an industry is not profitable, so we are also taking a big leap into looking at how to operate slightly differently from the industry norm in an attempt to tap into new markets and explore a less financially taxing system of operation, one that allows us more market reach and agility in production.

The name “Liblib” is just perfect. Do you remember how you came up with it? 

NS: Yes, we were all brainstorming and Muhab suggested it… It was simple, yet provided depth because of how descriptive and culturally relevant it was. Childish, in a sense.  It invokes that element of surprise, of getting to know that someone has the capacity to speak another language, or a kid with incredible speech abilities, or a delightful fluency in the way they speak. It’s playful, it’s about the spoken words rather than the written, and we all loved it.

You’re planning to start out by crowdfunding. Of all the possible startup funding options (applying to a foundation? getting a bank loan? finding a … rich sponsor?) why did crowdfunding turn out to be the best way to get off the ground? 

NS: We don’t know that it is, but it’s a great way to test the market, and that is what makes it a very attractive proposition for us to launch our presales. It should help us to gather our customer base’s perspectives; what (content)  and where (location) demand is. The issue with a lack of Arabic children’s literature in spoken/colloquial is truly everyone’s problem, and we want our customers to feel like they are providing solutions by being an integral part of solving the issue rather than a bank or sponsor.

It also helps us focus on online marketing, where most of our customers are, as well as to test the market with presales. It allows us to sell without breaking the bank. And it’s a great way to test the idea. If we can’t sell online, then commercially we are failing.

You have a fantastic mission statement — not only aiming to be world-class, inspiring, inclusive, accessible, and diverse, but also to get the books to children everywhere. Not literally of course, nobody gets books everywhere, but what is your distribution plan, and how will you get them to wide audiences in diaspora communities and where each colloquial is a majority language? 

NS: Our first distribution plan is online sales. This said, it’s not the best time for worldwide shipping! But we can in theory still ship globally (at varying costs). After that, we will be available in bookstores in countries where there is demand. But again, if we don’t make our kickstarter sales goals…we won’t have any books to send anywhere. So it’s very important that all the support we have found both online and offline so far translates into sales, in numbers that allow us to print. So in essence we are asking for backing now so that there is a later.

Seems very sensible to start off with a miniature library of board books for ages 0-3. Do you have a plan, after that, for moving into picture books for 3-6, chapter books for 6-8, perhaps some books that bridge into fos7a?

NS: Yes, our plan is to expand first to story books for younger children, followed by chapter books and eventually even tween/YA fiction – in as many spoken dialects of Arabic as there is demand for! So we’re starting with Egyptian boardbooks; once that is successful, we move into Egyptian storybooks and Iraqi boardbooks and so on.

This will also allow us to standardize the dialects as well as plan for transition books and games to allow our readers to transfer their reading skills to fos7a (though we also expect that will be a natural consequence of fostering a love of reading in the languages children actually speak, or hear spoken). 

What are the distribution challenges and opportunities particular to publishing colloquial Arabic children’s literature? Do you imagine yourselves traveling to book fairs? I suppose you wouldn’t expect support from schools, for instance?

NS: We hope to make it to all the book fairs. I must say, we were lucky to attend online this year and last, the three biggest book fairs. Hopefully next year, we can show up in person to many with a more diverse library of our own content.

We have a little plan for schools, but I’ll keep that for the right moment to share.

How do you see colloquial books as part of the overall landscape of Arabic children’s books? 

NS: We believe if stories and books reflect how people actually speak around them, they would be a lot more interested in reading, in books, in learning Arabic – and eventually in fus7a too.

It’s an obvious stepping stone for children to learn the language before truly getting into formal education in fus7a, especially with how reading is taught phonetically in most countries now. Regardless, children first and foremost need to be interested in the content itself. It has to be relevant, fun and attractive. Especially at that young age. It feels like a really good time to test this theory practically, especially now that everyone is reclaiming 3ammiya on social media. Think, for instance, of the case of Luxembourgish.

Honestly, we just hope it brings children a lot of joy and helps them love reading in Arabic and to own the language.

Who knows, maybe they’ll even learn a new dialect or two in the process.

Find more at facebook.com/liblibpublishing.

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

***

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.

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.

Interviews

Picture Book Author Walid Taher: ‘When I Write, I Consider Everyone a Child’

Award-winning Egyptian children’s-book author and illustrator Walid Taher (The Black Dot, A Bit of Air, Balad: Voyage sans bagage) has been working out of Marseilles since 2016, where he has been doing his most experimental work yet:

By Yasmine Motawy

Photo courtesy Yasmine Motawy.

Even as Walid Taher’s work gains the attention of niche artistic audiences, it has not alienated him from his first audiences. Taher’s workshops with children in Paris, Marseilles, Cairo, Dubai, Munich, Sierre, Annemasse, Geneva, Tetouan, and Oujda show that children are just as excited about his recent works as they were about his more traditional early ones.

Le Port a Jauni is the bilingual Arabic-French publisher of Taher’s quietly dramatic bilingual work Les Danseurs, which first came out in October 2018. I met with Walid Taher to talk about this unusual book.

Yasmine Motawy: I’ll start with the traditional question: How did this book come about?

Walid Taher: The title came to me first; as it occurred to me one evening that everyone misses dancing, but because they are so focused on achievement, they put off “the dance”until after they’re done achieving everything they set out to in life. I began sketching dancers of all sorts, and then I began to notice that with every successive sketch, I was trying to get closer to the essence of dance itself, and that any simile involving dance likened the dancer to something else; she dances like the wind, he dances like fire, like a horse, like a boat in the sea, like the trees, like smoke, like a happy heart, and I immediately stopped sketching the imitators and began thinking of ways to express the original dancers of Nature.

I thought about the sea first, and played with how to express it: Should I paint blue waves crashing violently on the shore? No, I wanted to illustrate the wave’s dance itself! The waves in their state of perpetual dancing, so I played a great deal with that first. It was as though I wanted to express screaming, so instead of painting a screaming girl, I tried to paint the scream itself.

I made hundreds of sketches and ended up with paintings that were often significantly different from one another, so I used motifs to pull them together for the purpose of the book. These motifs that recur in my works include: Turkish coffee pots, bottles, bicycles, and horses are all heavily infused with familiarity and probably a bit of sentimentality; I don’t drink Turkish coffee but I love Turkish coffee pots.

YM: Were you concerned that your young audience might not understand what this was all about?

WT: Yes and no.

First off, this book is still part of the experimental trajectory that I’ve been on in collaboration with my French publisher, Mathilde Chèvre of Le Port a Jauni. When I first thought of the book, I told her, “This time I’ll be making a book with no conditions attached to it,” meaning, I did not want to be required to ensure that the book had features that made it “for children.” That was part of the experiment; to make a book that was as free as its subject matter.

In any case, when I write, I consider everyone to be a child, I speak to the child inside every person I am addressing, so the child-aged person is never my only reader.

On the other hand, I was tremendously concerned about how children would receive these images that were unanchored to narrative, and that instead of being direct visual representations, expressed mainly movement and joy. This is when the poetry that appears alongside my illustrations came in. Some paintings never inspired poetry, so were discarded from this collection, and some poetry never matched an image and was also abandoned.

YM: This is the book where I feel you have exercised the most control over the layout; Why do you still think that this is a children’s book rather than an art book?

WT: I am convinced that any art in existence comes from the world of childhood; it is the skill to finely execute it that comes from the world of adults. Like any art, the creatures that can comprehend the joy of dance the most are children. As adults, we try to shed the weight of our age until we are able to return to our free dance state, where our inner state matches our outward physical expression.

YM: I trained as a dancer when I was young, and when you express dance as joy and abandon, I wonder… because for me, dance is also a great deal of discipline and timing.

WT: There is an old story of a man who wanted to play the violin at the circus. He went to the circus people and told them he wanted to play the violin. They told him he would have to learn the trapeze first. He asked them: “Then will I be allowed to play the violin?” and they said, “Yes, then you can play the violin.” So he trained for a year and when the year was out, he asked again if he might play his violin, and they told him he had to train for another year to become part of the human pyramid. After that year of training, he performed with them, and as he stood at the very top of the human pyramid, he pulled out his violin and played.

The happy dancer is a well-trained dancer who is grounded in his discipline but can let go of the shackles of his training and play the violin with abandon at the top of a human pyramid.

Artists have always expressed the desire to forget all they have learned so they can arrive at a moment of childhood, where they can drink from the fount of creativity. They travel to other countries looking for this “innocence lost.” After they reach the pinnacle of their skill, they notice that the power of expression is tipped in favor of those who need to say something, not necessarily those who can perform with skill. This burning need to express, I always argue, comes from the world of children.

YM: What do you have to say about travel and the artist?

WT: For me, living abroad and traveling around was largely about interactions with new audiences. This has galvanized my performative faculties and rejuvenated my experimental energy. The mental state of wonder that comes when traveling, which I try to touch on in Balad: Voyage sans bagageis starting to give way to a sense of re-attunement to new lands and places …

Taher’s Les Danseurspages 21-22.

YM: One of the reasons that traditional Arabic calligraphers made their work challenging to decipher was so that viewers would slow down and make an effort. You have a signature font that your readers recognize — even from the book covers you did for Al Shorouk Publishing House a long time ago, but the ‘grape bunch’ calligraphies you use in Les Danseurs are new — tell me about them.

WT: In the 1980s, there was a spurt of picture books that were inspired by the Masters. The idea was that the picture book was a great medium with which to teach children art appreciation. The art that was selected for these books was obviously extremely Eurocentric, but that was not the only criticism of this movement. It also turns out that since children are the ones expected to create new artistic solutions, not just regurgitate old ones, these books were a little limiting.

My publisher was concerned that I too was becoming increasingly influenced by the artistic modes I was coming in contact with during my stay in France and I, in turn, was concerned that she might be trying to Orientalize my work! So we sat down for long creative talks into the night at the villa Ruffieux residency in Switzerland where I ultimately ended up making most of this book, discussing our dilemma. We never came to any definitive solution, but it was during this period that I was inspired to make the grape bunch calligraphies, and I made hundreds of them at villa Ruffieux.

YM: You have been travelling around doing a lot of workshops with children; how are you finding those?

WT: I split the “work” I do at these workshops 50/50; half of the work I do, and the other half the children do. I change story scenarios from my books and ask them where they would have taken the stories if they were their own. I am reassured, especially with my newer books, when they grasp the concepts quickly, because I often worry about the reception of books in countries where I do not speak the language.

Speaking of translation, I once went alone to a workshop in Montreuil without a translator, and so I used Google Translate to pull sentences together, and I sketched with the kids, and it went quite well for about two hours. Little was lost in translation. I also do readings and discussions in both French and Arabic and find that the school art programs in many of the countries I have visited put the children in a good place when it comes to responding to abstract images and using materials and colors to produce their own artistic responses. I used the pictures produced by one children’s workshop in Oujda, Morocco as the end pages of my book with an acknowledgement.

YM: Where *are* you now?

WT: I feel like I am at a station where I’m being asked after 25 years of working what it is that I know. The answer to this is constantly changing, but I feel that I am consolidating and reflecting on what I have contributed to humanity, you know what I mean?

I think that I am communicating all I that I know by writing and drawing, and I will continue to do this as long as publishers will allow me. I say this because the transference of your entire self into art is not really in demand in the Arab world, especially in children’s books. The focus is more on what you want to say to children, morally and educationally.

Other interviews with Walid Taher in English:

Yasmine Motawy. “Travelling Light: Walid Taher Talks to Yasmine Motawy About His Latest Book, Out in Arabic and French.” Arablit.org.11 Oct 2017.

Yasmine Motawy. “A Space of One’s Own.” Rhetoric Today. The American University in Cairo. 2014.

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