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

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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.

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.