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.

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

*

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

Awards · Illustrators · Middle Grade · Picture Books · Young Adult

The 6 Winners of the 2020 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature

Judges for this year’s Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature went from 221 submissions from 22 countries to a 13-book longlist, to the six winners announced at an online ceremony streamed online today:

The top category, “Children’s Book of the Year,” went to Egyptian author Hadil Ghoneim and illustrator Sahar Abdallah for Shahrazizi’s Nights: A Tale Within a Tale Within a Tale, published by Dar al-Balsam in Egypt. Ghoneim has previously been shortlisted for the Etisalat Prize, in the YA category, while Abdallah won the 2018 “Best Illustrations” category with her Think of Others.

This year’s “Best Illustrations” category went to The Monster and Me, illustrated by Baraa Al Awour and written by Aisha Abdullah Al Harithi, while “Best Text” went to Words by Syria’s Jikar Khorshid. The book was illustrated by Maha Daher.

“Best Silent Book” went to The Apple, by Asma Amara, illustrated by Atifa Abdullah, while “Best Production” went to I’ll Be Okay, co-authored by Essam Asmir and Lama Azmar, illustrated by Hanane al-Kai, and published by Jabal Amman in Jordan.

And although there was no shortlist announced for this year’s Young Adult category, judges did announce a winner: شقائق النعمان (The Poppy Anemone), by Haya Saleh, published by Al Yasmine for Publishing and Distribution in Jordan.

According to the publisher, the novel follows two brothers who find themselves in unjust circumstances, who set out on an adventure to search for one another.

Watch the full announcement:

Young Adult

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

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

Awards: Shortlisted for the Etisalat Children Literature Award 2014

Author: Taghreed Najjar

Illustrations: Ammar Khattab

Publisher: Al Salwa Publishing

Target age: 12+

Goodreads ratings: average 4.24 stars (out of 5)

Buy in Arabic: لغز عين الصقر

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

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

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

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

From: The Mystery of the Falcon’s Eye

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

By Taghreed Najjar

Translated by Joseph Devine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

“But whose gold was it? Tell me.”

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

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

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

“Don’t worry Sitti, I won’t tell.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.