Fantasy · Young Adult

Ahmed al-Mahdi’s ‘Reem’: Dark Yet Witty YA Fantasy

ArabKidLitNow recommends Ahmed al-Mahdi’s dark yet witty YA fantasy, Reem (ريم).

Author’s awards:Winner of the Short Story Award, 2017, from the Egyptian Society for Science Fiction, for the short story “Unusual Visitor”

Author: Ahmed al-Mahdi

Publisher: Al-Kenzi for Publishing and Distribution

Contact: info@arablit.org

Buy in Arabic: ريم

Egyptian author-translator Ahmed al-Mahdi’s Reem: Into the Unknown (2017) is a dark YA fantasy, a reimagined folktale in the vein of T. Kingfisher’s The Seventh Bride. It opens from the point of view of Saif, who’s living a claustrophobic life in suburban Cairo, working a desk for a major corporation. His life is empty, and, after taking a detour to get around a typical Cairo traffic jam, he crosses paths with a pet store, just a stone’s throw away from home. There, he finds a cage covered in black cloth, hiding a strange black cat. This launches Saif—and the reader—into the intertwined stories of Reem and Osama.

Reem re-tells a European horror-folktale in an Egyptian setting, with Egyptian wit, relaying the story of a girl who’s pressed into witchcraft by her seemingly kind old grandmother.  Saif must untangle the threads of the story, delving into the world of greed and witchcraft thriving just beneath the workaday world of modern Cairo.

Ahmed al-Mahdi is an author, translator, and critic who lives in Cairo, Egypt and has published three novels, as well as numerous stories for children.

Sample:

In his office at one of Egypt’s big corporations, Saif sat in front of his computer’s bright screen, feeling totally bored. He stared inattentively at the numbers that ran past on his screen, and from time to time he yawned and checked the time on the wooden clock that hung on the wall, wondering how much time was left till the workday ended. Although he had a digital clock in the corner of his screen, he preferred the sound of the wooden clock ticking away, with its constant, circular, clockwise movement, which gave him a sense of the passage of time.

He struck the keys with the rapid movements that now came to him, as he was used to the mundane work that drained away hours of his life every day. He felt especially weary today, because it was the last day of the week, and he was looking forward to the weekend. It seemed there was an unwritten rule that, the closer the thing you wanted, the more you craved it. He didn’t actually do much on the weekends — just watch TV and read the occasional novel — as he lived alone, and he preferred not to hang out much with his friends, who’d become used to his retiring personality.

Saif glanced up again at the wooden clock and noticed there were only about fifteen minutes remaining, so he arranged the papers on his desk and shut down his computer. Once the clock struck three o’clock, he left the office and rushed down the stairs. He didn’t like the elevator, since he was claustrophobic. Once he reached the ground floor, he headed to the garage, looking for his car, trying to remember where he’d parked it that morning. Finally he found it, and rushed toward it.

The garage worker was waving as usual to greet him, so he waved back before he got into his car. He started up the engine, which roared as usual. Then he left the office building, driving the car into the crowded city streets, heading straight for home. To pass the time, he began to think about what he’d have for lunch — although he don’t need to worry about deciding what to eat, since he lived alone. He might get some take-away, or cook a simple meal using his humble cooking skills, which hadn’t improved, even though he’d lived alone for many years. Today was, as he always told himself, “just another day.”

Yet on this particular day, there was construction work on the main road, and drivers had a hard time trying to pass through the tiny sliver of road that barely allowed for a single car to edge through. Saif wasn’t the kind of person who could bear sitting in a Cairo traffic jam, so he decided to take another route home. This way was actually longer, forcing him to take several side roads, but for him it was still better than being stuck with all the angry drivers on the main road.

When Saif passed a fast-food restaurant, he seized the opportunity and bought some hot sandwiches to eat on the long ride home. But then, before he got home, he noticed a pet store. Even though it was close to his apartment, this was the first time he’d ever seen it. If he hadn’t been forced to change his daily route, he might never have seen it.

He suddenly felt the desire for a pet, without knowing where the urge came from. Maybe it was just the idea of doing something new and different, or maybe it was because his friends kept insisting that he marry, telling him that living alone could make him lose his mind. Maybe the company of a pet would relieve his loneliness. Although the idea seemed strange to him at first, after he turned it over in his head – while he was standing in front of the shop – he said to himself, “Why not?”

Full manuscript and plot synopsis available upon request.

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Young Adult

Sonia Nimr’s ‘Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands’: A Feminist Folk-Historical Novel for All Ages

ArabKidLitNow recommends Sonia Nimr’s award-winning young-adult novel, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands (رحلات عجيبة في البلاد الغريبة).

Post-award edition of the Arabic.

Awards: Winner of the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, 2014; IBBY Honor List 2014

Author: Sonia Nimr

Publisher: Tamer Institute

Contact: info@arablit.org

Buy in Arabic: رحلات عجيبة في البلاد الغريبة

Sonia Nimr’s Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands was published in 2013 by Tamer Institute. In 2014, it won the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, in the YA category, and also was an IBBY honor-list book that year.

This gorgeous feminist-fable-plus-historical-novel is the sort of literary folktale that’s enjoyable for all ages. Take 1001 Nights and the narratives of the great 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta, put tell them through an irrepressible Palestinian girl.

In English, there’s nothing like it.

Our story begins hundreds of years ago, when our hero — Qamr — is born at the foot of a mountain in Palestine, near her father’s strange, isolated village. Her mother solves the mystery of why only boys are born in this odd, conservative village. But then, in proper 1001 Nights style, this tale moves into another. Qamr’s parents die, and a prince with many wives wants to marry her. Qamr takes her favorite book, Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, as she flees through Gaza, to Egypt, is captured and made a slave to the sister of the mad king in Egypt. After many adventures in the palace (and a time helping the sister to rule!) she then runs away to study with a polymath in Morocco. But when it’s discovered she’s a girl, she must leave there, too, and disguises herself as a boy becomes a pirate to sail the Mediterranean. Qamr has a child, who is stolen from her, and she follows her daughter to Yemen. In the final moments, we hold our breath, as it seems she’s about to find her little daughter. There is never a boring moment in this clear, charmingly told, girl-centric book.

Wondrous is around 220 pages inthe Arabic and about 70,000 words in translation. It has already been translated into Spanish.

Sample:

Cover of the Spanish translation

And so it was that my mother went into labor while sitting astride the donkey that was carrying her from the city to our village. My father had to halt the caravan, then pitch my mother a small tent at the foot of the mountain.

It was a difficult birth. If it weren’t for the quick-wittedness of her servant, and the instructions my mother gave in spite of her condition, she would’ve died bringing us into this world. My mother bore twins in that tent at the foot of the mountain, and she stayed in it seven days before she managed to continue on the hardest part of her journey: the ascent up the mountain.

That summer was scorching hot, and at this time of year the trip was almost suicide. Yet it was also the only time of year when the wide valley surrounding the mountain could be safely crossed by those who wanted to reach our village. My father had left his nameless town nearly four years before, thinking he would never return.

Yet fate had other plans.

“The Village” was the name of this tiny, hard-to-reach hamlet that sat high on a mountain, whose people lived off farming and sheep-herding. The men of the village went down to the city once a year, traveling for two days until they reached it, either on foot or by donkey. There, they would sell their produce of cheese, fruit, olives, and leather, and they would buy what they needed of clothes, tools, and sometimes books. In the city, the villagers would also learn news of the past year, the name of their country’s ruler, and other tales.

“The Village,” as the people who lived there knew it, was so isolated that no one knew of its existence, save a few of the city’s merchants who traded with the villagers. No one visited the village. Since only adult men went down to the city, none of the women knew what the city looked like, nor even how to reach it. The men made their journey in the summer, when the valley around the mountain dried out. For the rest of the year, the village was isolated by the wide, water-filled valley below.

All the people in the village were relatives born of one original family. The story went like this:

Sheikh Saad, the village’s first elder, fled the south of Palestine hundreds of years ago. He’d murdered a man, and feared revenge from the man’s family. Sheikh Saad wandered with his own family for a long time, until he had a dream. In it, he saw an enormous tree with leaves that were always green, throwing their broad shade over a mountain, and so he went north until he found that tree. There, on the mountain, he built his house and the village.

Over the years, our village established its own laws and beliefs, created and enforced by its Council of Elders. The villagers believed, for instance, that if anyone left the village to live somewhere far away, it would bring a curse on the village, dragging in its wake ruin and misfortune. They also believed that, if a stranger were to come into the village, it would bring difficulties, perhaps leaving them cursed for all times. So marriage to men outside the village was forbidden—even though, since the women weren’t allowed to leave, marriage to an outsider was impossible!

In the village, only boys were allowed to learn to read. Girls were barred from education and denied access to books, for fear the books would corrupt them.

Life in the village had gone on like this for many years. The laws took root and grew increasingly complex, such that no one even dared think of staying in the city more than the two sanctioned weeks. Certainly no one dared marry outside the village. Neither did the women think of learning, nor the girls of playing. And no one dared raise his eyes to meet the gazes of the village’s long-bearded elders, who were its absolute rulers. If one of the elders passed by on the road, the men would stop working. They’d bend their backs and stare at the ground until the elder had completely disappeared.

As to women, whether they worked in the fields or stayed at home, they were not allowed to have a single honest look at the elders. They had to be satisfied, or even happy, that the only reason they might be allowed in the elders’ presence was during an appearance before the court. That’s where they would end up if one of their husbands filed a complaint against them. In these cases, the elders’ rulings were harsh. Either they would order the woman be beaten in the village square, or they’d order her locked up in a house with other guilty wives. They would stay that way for one to three months, depending on the strength of the accusation.

The House of Shamed Wives was a small, single-room shack at the edge of the village, without windows or light, where women would live on dry bread and water until the end of their sentence. Then she’d have to promise not to raise her head in front of her husband, nor speak to him, unless she had been spoken to first.

And yet despite all the strict laws and extreme caution, a curse came to the village: One day, a man named Suleiman fled from them and didn’t return. The men of the village said that Suleiman loved a girl from the city who, they claimed, was a djinn. It was she who seized his mind and made him commit this crime. The curse had been in place since his departure, and the village elders could do nothing about it.

Entire manuscript available in English upon request.

Young Adult

Taghreed Najjar’s ‘Against the Tide’: Inspired by the True Story of a Teen Gazan Fisherwoman

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

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Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2013

Author: Taghreed Najjar

Publisher: Salwa Books

Contact: ejaquette@gmail.com

Buy in Arabic: ست الكل

When the course of her family’s life changes forever, 15-year-old Yusra 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.

Yusra repairs her father’s old boat with the help of her older brother’s friends, but that is only the first hurdle she has to overcome. She must convince her parents she responsible enough to take the boat out by herself, and that it does not matter if conservative Gazan society disapproves. Yusra perseveres and ventures out to sea where she faces the greatest challenge of all: catching enough fish to support her family, while staying within the 3-mile zone in which Palestinians are allowed to fish. One day Yusra accidently goes too far, and in a harrowing encounter, the Israeli navy threatens to seize her boat. After being interviewed by a foreign journalist, Yusra decides that she too wants to be a journalist when she grows up, to help show the world what life in Gaza is really like. She pursues her new dream with the same determination: she gains access to the Internet, starts taking photographs, and begins a blog. Eventually, Yusra realizes that she can be whoever she sets her mind to be, even against terrible odds.

The details of life in Gaza highlight the historical and political specificity of Yusra’s story. Nonetheless, Against the Tide shows that despite life under occupation, Yusra is much like a girl of her age anywhere: she seeks more independence, enjoys the help and companionship of her friends, and has a frustrating but loving relationship with her family. In the end she learns that, even if her goals change, her resourcefulness will carry her along her new path. This compelling read speaks powerfully in the name of social justice, by exploring global issues through a relatable and strong female protagonist who deals with complex real-life problems.

Against the Tide is inspired by the true story of a young Gazan girl named Madelein Callab, who became Gaza’s first fisherwoman at the age of 15. The novel was shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2013, and this translation was awarded a PEN Samples Grant in 2015.

Sample:

Yusra knew what she needed to do. She put her fishing net in the boat along with the lunch her mother had packed and insisted that Yusra take with her. She dragged the little boat to the edge of the shore, and with Abu Ahmed’s help and a final push, the boat was in the water. She started to paddle.

“Good luck, my girl,” her father called out from shore, his voice a bit hoarse. “Good luck, Sitt al-Kul.”
“Remember what I taught you, Yusra,” Abu Ahmed called after her excitedly. “And don’t go more than three miles from shore. Because if you do…” he trailed off.

Yusra stood up in the small boat, found her balance, and then began to paddle: once on the right side, then once on the left. For weeks, she and Abu Ahmed had practiced balancing and paddling. After being away from the sea for so long, she now felt her muscles growing stronger with every day.

Yusra looked around and saw several other fishing boats heading towards the horizon, to the farthest point the Israeli naval patrol ships allowed. The fishing was better out there.

Those heading out to sea included many seasoned fishermen around her father’s age and lots of young teenage boys about her age, but Yusra was the only girl, the only fisherwoman.

An additional sample and reader’s report are also available online. More available upon request.

Young Adult

Taghreed Najjar’s ‘One Day the Sun Will Shine’: A Syrian Teen’s Epic, Heart-breaking Journey

ArabKidLitNow recommends Taghreed Najjar’s third Young Adult novel, One Day the Sun Will Shine (ستشرق الشمس ولو بعد حين).

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2017

Author: Taghreed Najjar

Publisher: Salwa Books

Contact: info@arablit.org

Buy in Arabicستشرق الشمس ولو بعد حين

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One Day the Sun Will Shine is a powerful YA novel about one teen’s transformation from an ebullient but naïve Damascene girl to a young woman making her way alone as she deals with outrageous loss, xenophobia, and the struggle to define herself.

This epic bildungsroman is set during the first year of the uprising in Syria that became a civil war. One Day the Sun Will Shine follows sixteen-year-old Shaden as her brother joins the conflict, her father dies of heart failure, their building is destroyed, her brother is jailed, her mother is killed by a stray bullet, and her aunt suggests marrying her off to an older man in the Gulf.

Like Dave Eggers’ What is the What, the subject matter of One Day the Sun Will Shine is often painful and grim. But the experience is lightened by Shaden’s fighting spirit as well as moments of joy and humor.

Shaden goes from being a spirited girl who relies on others to one paralyzed with grief. Later, after the shock of overhearing her aunt’s marriage plans, she finds the will to deceive her aunt and uncle, buy a boat passage from smugglers, and travel alone across the Mediterranean. She reaches an Italian refugee camp and finally gets a train to Malmo, Sweden, where she makes a new life with her paternal uncle. There, things are not “happily ever after.” Instead Shaden must face all her bottled grief while integrating into a new country.

Although there are a few novels for young readers with contemporary Syrian characters, such as Alan Gratz’s Refugee, there is none yet translated from Arabic. Moreover, Shaden is not defined by her “refugeeness,” and indeed she bristles at the word meskina or “poor dear.” She is a human being struggling to find her way through violence, loss, depression, xenophobia, patriarchy, and the fickle hearts of fellow humans. And she not only survives, but finds a way to reclaim life, and to feel the sun again.

Sample: Shaden waved at her friends on the bus and said, laughing, “See you tomorrow! Byeeee!” Then she hurried into the building, carrying her gym bag on one shoulder and her schoolbag on the other. She leapt up the stairs until she reached her house on the third floor. As she opened the apartment door, her schoolbag tipped and books started spilling out onto the floor. She quickly stuffed the books back in, slammed the door behind her with a foot, and dumped her things on the table, saying eagerly, “Mama, where are you? I have amazing news! Our team won at basketball today.”

More, and a plot summary, are available upon request.