One Girl ‘Against the Tide’: A Gazan Story, a Universal Story

Today, organizers will announce the winners of the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature, including in the Young Adult category. Last year, Taghreed Najjar’Sitt al-Kol was on a very strong five-book YA shortlist as she is again, this year, for Hawk Eye Mystery. Sitt al-Kol has not yet been published in English, although the story certainly would have wide appeal:

L_635147413463413480When Sitt al-Kol opens, we are immediately clear that this is a new sort of Arabic novel for young readers. There are no animals, no easy morals, no nostalgic glances back to childhood. This is not a book written for adults about childhood, but a book for sophisticated, curious young readers.

When we first meet Yusra, the protagonist, her father is kicking up a fuss about his watery tea, shouting at her mother and embarassing the family. Yusra must go to a neighbor and ask for a handout, and the neighbor is none too kind about it.

Although Yusra is a fictional character, the book — its title translated as Against the Tideis based on the story of Madeleine Kolab, who took up her father’s trade after he became too ill to manage his small skiff.

In the book, Yusra’s older brother has been killed, and her father ended up in a wheelchair when one of the tunnels beneath the border with Egypt collapsed. Yusra’s mother is busy with their small family, and her younger brother is far too young to be of financial help. So it is that 15-year-old Yusra must step forward and help provide for her small family.

Like Madeleine Kolab, Yusra repairs her father’s fishing boat and takes it out to sea. Like Madeleine, Yusra also must contend with society’s narrow opinions and fierce Israeli gunboats.

As the story progresses, we come to see another, gentler side to Yusra’s father. But, by the time this happens, the sympathy is earned. He is not just a distant patriarch who dispenses advice and morals, but a human being. Indeed, the story is full of complex human characters and rich with details about ordinary life in Gaza. But although it’s very particular, it’s also universal: a girl who both wants to fit in and to go her own way.

Against the Tide is similar to a few other recent YA books that have come out in Arabic. Unlike earlier books for young people, they don’t read as moral advice, but instead address enormous political issues, just as Fatima Sharafeddine’s award-winning Faten tackled class issues and the treatment of servants in Beirut.

Against the Tide slows a little after Yusra moves away from fishing into other ways of organizing her future, but it also shows many unconventional facets of young people’s lives in Gaza, including contemporary rap music and musicians. It is also perhaps unwittingly faithful to Madeleine Kolab, who, according to The National in 2011, had ambitions that were “always changing.” Six months before the story was published, “she wanted to be a fashion designer, but now she is eyeing a diploma in sports, which she hopes will lead to a job, perhaps teaching, before she settles down in marriage.”

The story will have clear appeal in translation, because of its depiction of Gaza outside war and its strong female protagonist. English — and other rights — are still available.

Several months ago, author Taghreed Najjar generously answered a few questions about putting together the book:

ArabLit: When did you first learn about Madeline Kolab? When did you decide to turn her story into the basis for a book? 

Taghreed Najjar: One day about four or five years ago, I was listening to the BBC  while driving when I heard an interview with Madelene Kolab, a 14 year old girl who had become Gaza’s first fisherwoman. I was intrigued, especially since the subject was close to my heart on two counts, women’s empowerment and Palestinian rights. I wrote a mental note that it would be a great subject for a story.

In fact, when I got home I added the idea to a file I had on my computer where I put ideas in one sentence to come back to  when I am ready to develop the story. Here is what I wrote:

فكرة عن فتاة في غزة تصبح صيادة وعن الصعوبات التي تواجهها وكيف تتغلب عليها

At that time I did not think that I would write a preteen book, so I was thinking in terms of a picture book. I kept coming back to the idea but found it difficult to put all I wanted to say in a picture book.

After I wrote and published Raghda’s Hat, I was encouraged to develop the idea into a teen book and wrote Sitt el Kol.

AL: How much did you base on her story and how much did you invent? Did you do any particular research about fishing, about the situation of Gazan fishermen, etc.?

TN: When I started writing the story, I decided that I would not research and read more about Madelene. I was satisfied by the information I had of her story and wanted to have the  freedom to think of Yusra my protagonist without any constraint. I wanted to develop Yusra as a separate person with her own family story her own likes and dislikes. I did not want her to be a shadow to Madelene.

I read a lot about fishing in Gaza and about the life of fishermen and the difficulties they face with the Israeli army.

As I started writing, I realized how much information about Gaza was stored in my subconscious over the years. It seemed to me that I remembered every little thing I read about Gaza and I let it flow. Every time I introduced a factor from Gaza’s life I would research it to make sure that what I wrote was factually correct like the tunnels or rap music  location, etc.

AL: Why did you decide to write for young adults after many years writing for younger children? How did you find the leap into writing for young adults? Was the writing process very different? Did you make outlines/structures for the book or did you just start and develop the story as you went? 

TN: For so long people would ask me why I never wrote books for older children and I would say, “One day when I feel I am ready I may just do that.”

To tell you the truth I surprised myself on two counts, first that I was able to do it and that it was very well received by people. Second, that I enjoyed the process so much. The writing process is of course different. In some ways, it is more relaxed because you can express what you want to say freely and have more words to do that. In picture books, you need to present the idea with a punch but with very few words. As for structure, I did not follow any rules but felt my way through the process with a very loose outline.

One thing I realized in both books is that if you allow it then the story will simply write itself. I was happy that I did not have iron-clad outlines because it gave me the freedom to follow the rhythm of the book. My daughters would laugh at me when I said, “I am eager to get back to my computer, I want to find out what happens next in the story.”

ArabLit: What was the hardest part of putting together this book? Is there anything you learned during the process that you wish you could go back and tell yourself at the very beginning?

TN: The hardest part was the language editing. Trying to find an acceptable balance between colloquial dialogue and classical Arabic narration. How much to use to keep the flavor without alienating many readers.

During the process I learned to respect my subconscious and to give time for the story to develop without rushing it or trying to force the outcome.

AL: What has been the reaction from Palestinian readers, and especially readers from Gaza? Did you ever worry that you might misrepresent Gaza in some way, since you’re not there

TN: After the story was published, I had a number of presentations about the story in schools and clubs. The best compliment the kids gave me was that the story was not boring and that they could not put it down until they finished it.

It is a compliment because kids in schools tend to shy away from reading Arabic books and deem them as boring.

The story and presentation managed to put light on life in Gaza which to many kids here is so near and yet so far. They learned about current events in our area in context through a story with characters they could identify with. In the story, I tried to show that Gaza was like any other place and not just a battlefield. I tried to show people with different interests and viewpoints.

I got very positive feedback from people in Gaza who read it. During a video conference that took place a couple of months ago, one of them asked me how I knew so much about Gaza without visiting it. Another asked how I knew the Gazan dialect. (I had not used it in the book, but they felt as though I have.)

I was a bit worried that Madelene may object to some parts of it, but she said she enjoyed reading it and found many of the details I wrote reflected her experience.

One of the young men in Gaza asked me during the video conference why I wrote about rap music in Gaza, and objected that it was not representative. I agreed, but said that I was trying to show that Gaza like any other place in the world had many different people with different outlooks and  interests. I chose to focus on rappers there because I was writing for young people and this reflected some of their interests.