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