Is There a Renaissance in Arabic Children’s Literature?

On Sunday, May 10, celebrated Lebanese children’s book author Fatima Sharafeddine spoke at the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair with scholar Mathilde Chèvre, author-illustrator Gulnar Hajo, and illustrator Raouf Karray, along with several other authors and illustrators in the audience. They discussed whether or not there’s a “nahda”—or renaissance—in Arabic children’s literature:

As I forgot to take photos at the event, this is an old picture of Fatima at the Balsam Bookshop in Cairo.

As I forgot to take photos at the event, this is an old picture of Fatima at the Balsam Bookshop in Cairo.

Sharafeddine began writing picture books in the early 2000s, and has since written and translated more than a hundred children’s books. Her multi-award-winning work has been translated into Dutch, Danish, Spanish, Catalan, French, German, English, Turkish, Swedish, and Korean. Hajo started, along with her husband Samer, the publishing house “Brightfingers,” the first private children’s-book house in Syria. Karray is an innovating and award-winning illustrator and a professor at the Higher Institute of Arts and Crafts in Sfax, Tunisia.

Chèvre, who moderated the talk, is a publisher, author and illustrator of children’s books in France and Egypt and focused her doctoral thesis on children’s books in Arab countries since the 1970s.

Chèvre was the most adamant about calling the movement that began around fifteen years ago a nahda, citing the number of child-focused publishing houses that have sprung up from Casablanca to Tunis to Cairo to Beirut to Damascus. “It’s not only the number,” Chèvre said, “it’s also the quality of the books.”

This was not a movement that came from nowhere, Chèvre said, but from experiments in the 1970s, and particularly experiments by Egyptian artist and children’s-book author Mohieddin El Labbad, who aimed to reclaim Egyptian heritage through illustration.

Maybe not a nahda?

Lebanese publisher and children’s-book author Nabiha Mheidly, of Dar al-Hadaek, was in the audience, and she argued that it was not so deep as a renaissance, but was instead more of a movement, an experiment. Hajo said that she was very optimistic: “When there is money, there is a market, and there is development. We don’t have a market, but there is passion.”

“We don’t have organization,” she said, “but we have talented people.”

“When I work by myself, I make a nahda, but there is not a nahda of publishing.” Arabic children’s book publishing was just in the birth stages, she said. “It’s a birth, but difficult. Caesarean.”

Sharafeddine noted that one of the problems was the lack of criticism of Arabic children’s literature. “We used to have one magazine in Lebanon that came out once a month, but it stopped,” she said. “We will not develop, we will not get better, if nobody criticizes our work.”

Before the discussion, Sharafeddine and I also sat down and had a discussion about the topic. Parts of this interview appeared in the Abu Dhabi International Book Fair’s Show Daily:

A conversation with Sharafeddine

Is it a nahda? When did the nahda, or renaissance, in Arabic children’s literature begin?

It started it in the early 2000s: 2003 or 2004. That’s when I started writing, and I was lucky to start just when publishers were seeing the huge gap that we have—that we don’t have original, modern books written originally in Arabic for children.

Where did it start?

After winning a book prize at the Beirut Book Fair for her YA novel Faten, which has been translated into English and, most recently, into Turkish.

After winning a book prize at the Beirut Book Fair for her YA novel Faten, which has been translated into English as The Servant and, most recently, into Turkish.

It started in Beirut and Egypt mostly, with Dar al Shorouk and Asala and Hadaek, and with the books by Samah Idriss. It started in Beirut and Egypt mostly, with Dar al Shorouk and Asala and Hadaek, and with the books by Samah Idriss. He was one of the first who revolutionized the language with which you address children. And the first time I wanted to publish, I called him and I said I would like to write in Lebanese like you did, and he answered, “But I didn’t write in Lebanese. Re-read the books.” And then it became clear to me, that he was writing fosha (standardized Arabic) in a very, very simple way.

Okay. Then I can write that way, too.

Because I wrote my first four books in Lebanese. For me, my theory was that children under six, their mother tongue is the spoken language, so that’s how you address them. And once you address children over six, then you start writing in simple fosha, and you develop your language with them. But no publisher would publish me in Lebanese, and I was asked to re-write them in fosha. That’s when I worked on my style and discovered ways of reaching children.

Would you still like to write something in Lebanese?

Some things come out of me in Lebanese, especially rhymed text or poems or songs. But I’m happy I never published in Lebanese, because had I done that, I wouldn’t have been translated or known on an Arab scale, in the whole Arab world. So I guess the publishers were right back then.

If we run with this metaphor, what will really bring about a golden age in Arabic children’s literature?

As writers, and I’m going to talk about myself, I feel a bit tied up by all the restrictions that publishers are putting on me. You can’t write freely about things. I’m working on a novel, and I started with a girl, she noticed a guy, and she likes him. Her heart is beating fast, and she wants to approach him: He’s so handsome, he’s so sexy.

And then I thought, Okay, who’s going to publish this? So I changed it. I made him interested in her rather than her interested in him. And now I stopped because I said, No, I shouldn’t. I’m stuck.

I want to talk about her perspective, which happens!

I think we still have to go a big step ahead of ourselves to really call it a nahda. We have lots of taboos: You can’t say “I don’t believe in God” in a book for children, you can’t say “I hate my father” in a book for children, let alone have a pet dog or a peg pig, or say “I like pigs.”

So that’s the thing. I censor myself, still. It’s not my point to defy everybody. I just really want to reach the children in the best way I can. Maybe small steps will get it there, but we are still not there yet.

What do you think the role of digital books are in a potential nahda or in stopping a nahda?

lamsa_0It wouldn’t stop a nahda, to the contrary. We have to go with the technological development so that the children, if they can’t access the paper book, they can access it on an app. The other day, I was in Sour, a town in the south of Lebanon. During the reading, one of the girls started saying the words with me. And I said, ‘Wait, do you know the book?’

Yes, she told me. ‘Do you have it?’ No, she said, it’s on Lamsa (www.lamsaworld.com).

So I think it does contribute to the nahda in children’s literature.

What are the other exciting nahda-like initiatives?

There is a new initiative called Mubadara, the idea of Eva Kosma El Assad. She recently won the Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature for her book, and she’s using the money to launch this new initiative. So we are working together on the concept of this website, and it will be launched in September.

Mubadara will be a hub for writers and for illustrators to present information about their books. It will have instructions for teachers on how to use literature in the class. It has a page for parents, and it will have YouTube recordings of encounters between children and writers and illustrators. It also has a page for publishers. It’s going to be the place to go for whatever you want to know about Arabic children’s literature.

And Badr Ward, who launched Lamsa, has a new project. He’s organizing a children’s exhibition in Jeddah, working with Leonard Marcus.

What are stumbling blocks? Self-censorship and…?

The nahda happened when there was a lot of money put into this sector. So there was a boom, and then the money was finished, and there is now a decline. One of the problems is the publishers are catering to schools, so the production is getting cheaper and the content is aiming to please parents and teachers.

About censorship: A mother would let her child read a book in English about teenage pregnancy, but she won’t let him read it in Arabic. Because when you read it in English, you’re telling your son: OK, it happens there. It’s their culture, their language, their issues. It’s different. But when it’s in Arabic, then it becomes closer, and then they start thinking about those things.

Is there a growing respect for children’s book authors?

I think it will take a long time for children’s authors to have this respect.

That’s why we can’t say it’s a nahda until we have a respect, or the awareness of the importance of children’s book authors.

Do you have advice for someone who wants to write a children’s book?

  • They have to read maybe 1,000 books before they write one book. And they have to read in all the languages they know.
  • They have to know the language of the child. Not only the linguistic aspects of it, but how the child thinks and analyzes.
  • They must have knowledge of the psychology of human development of the child: the different stages of mental, social, and emotional development.
  • They have to put themselves in the shoes in the character they’re writing about, to make the reader feel they’re authentic.

Once they’ve written the perfect book, what should they do?

Do research about their rights. The problem is there is no transparency. They have to talk to a lawyer and study the contract they’re signing very well before they do any deals. Authors, when they’re publishing for the first time, they’re desperate: They would sign anything to get their book published. I did that, and I learned. So it’s good to work with a lawyer. And talk with other writers.

And then once they’ve found a publisher for their perfect book?

They have to dedicate themselves to promoting the book. You don’t make money from reading at schools or getting in touch with children. Until now, all the readings are for free in the Arab world. But it doesn’t matter, it’s not about money, they should go and they should work on promoting the books.

I was translated in the beginning, because I was living in Belgium and I translated my first four books into French. Then I made 50 copies, I put them in 50 envelopes, and I sent them to 50 publishers. And only one publisher answered about one book. And that’s how I started.

So don’t give up, even if you get rejections.

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Categories: children's

17 replies

  1. Thank you for this insightful article-I’m surprised that Rania Zaghir, who not only writes incredibly creative children’s books, does not feature in it. She’s not only been writing and publishing books but spends a lot of time bringing her books alive, inspiring children across Lebanon to love books and to read.

    • There are many pioneering children’s book authors across the region who should be profiled. Rania is certainly among them, as is Rania Amin in Egypt and Tagreed Najjar in Jordan and many others. It is a movement that stretches widely and deserves more attention.

  2. Agreed! And I look forward to read more about them on your blog.

  3. Some things come out of me in Lebanese, especially rhymed text or poems or songs. But I’m happy I never published in Lebanese, because had I done that, I wouldn’t have been translated or known on an Arab scale, in the whole Arab world. So I guess the publishers were right back then.

    Grrr. Couldn’t disagree more.

    • Yes… When I asked the question, I was thinking of you, and when I heard the answer, I was pretty sure you would disapprove.

      • 😉

        I have several of Ms. Sharafeddine’s books and my girls do like them. But they seem to prefer Samah Idris’s approach, because his books are not really in a simplified fuṣḥā so much as a slightly elevated Lebanese vernacular. The expressions, the syntax, the figures of speech, the illustrations, and most importantly — the situations themselves — are very identifiable as features of a Levantine childhood. Plus, they’re good stories…

  4. Reblogged this on moabdallah52 and commented:
    It’s very interesting .

  5. I am amazed that any writer in the Arab world can say “Nahda” started a few years back with Ftema Sharafeddine and Dar Ashshourouk or that Ellabbad wanted to keep the Egyptian heritage. It is sad to accept these sweeping statements , wiping out the legacy of the Dar Al Fata Al Arabi children books as a pan Arab project 1974-1994. That was the crucible where Dr. Ehssan Abbass was the editor in chief for the writings of Zakariya Tamer, Ghassan Kanafani,
    Tawfic Zayyad, Mueen Bsseisso, Mahgoub Omar, Taghreed el Najjar, Liana Badr, Hanan Alshaykh,Ibrahim Alhariri, Ayoub Mansour< Hassan Al Abdallah, Salim Barakat, Laila Saya, Sonallah Ibrahim , Ferial Ghazoul,
    Abdel Fattah Al Gamal, Mohammad Afifi Mattar were produced together with the most creative illustrations by the Masters of the era: Kamal Bullata, Mohie Ellabbad, Adli Rizkallah, Bahgat Osman, Saad Abdel Wahhab, Ali Mandalawi, Ehab Shaker, Nazeer Nabaa , Nabeel Tag and Helmi El Tuni and many others across the Arab world.
    Many of the Egyptian illustrators carried with them their previous experiences working either at Sindbad magazine with the famous Hussein Bicar and with Samir Magazine at Dar El Hilal with Nuteila Rashed.

    Acctually, Dar Ashshourouk tried to reprint the Dar Al Fata Al Arabi series and build on it. The problematics of Royalties and ownership rights got in the way.

    • Nobody was suggesting that the 1970s movement wasn’t an important part of the story of Arabic children’s listerature; indeed, Mathilde suggested the current “nahda” — if we can use the word — was building on the shoulders of those writers. Neither does suggesting there was a “nahda” at the end of the 19th/early 20th century wipe out or ignore the important writings of those who came before. I think Mathilde was only suggesting that this is a new movement, that started in the early 2000s with Samah Idriss and Gulnar Hajo and Taghreed alNajjar moving in a new direction, etc. etc.

  6. a- The Definition used by Mathilde should be clarified .
    b- She also summarized the experiences of the 70s singling out the name of the leading great illustrator and Book designer Ellabbad, while the crucible of Dar Al Fata Al Arabi, had started with the well known artist Kamal Bullatta and Ellabbad took over and continued the work with the rest of great collective of illustrators. Iam mostly concerned that the whole unique and revolutionary experience of Writing in Arabic, as opposed to translating from English or French,Illustrating original illustrations as opposed to buying films from foreign publishers and just printing it next to the translated text ),The whole genuine creative experience is
    forgotten .As if Nahda starts here and now from 2000-

    • a – It was only a brief conversation, so I would have to clarify it with Mathilde herself.

      b – yes, surely Arabic language production must take its central place, although Mathilde was certainly also interested in the role of translation in feeding Arabic-language ideas & productions. I will have another piece about translation and children’s literature in a few days.

      b2 – naming a “beginning” for anything is always a fraught process, bound to go wrong in some way, for instance the debates over the “first Arabic novel.”

      • Thank you for the kind concern to clarify. Of course translation has a role to play, But at the turn of the 20th Century and through the 1950s, the translated literature for Arab children took the centrality for a variety of reasons. Dar Al Fata Al Arabi corrected the priority and gave translation what they thought was good enough for Cultural Exchange . They chose outstanding Classics from various civilizations to translate into Arabic. They also selected original Arabic stories and translated it into English, French, Spanish and Italian to promote our literature in the West.
        so this part did not exceed 15% of the whole output during Twenty years of production.

        On the other note, the debate over the first Arabic novel has been controversial depending on the perspective at different times. The differences between the Colonial, Orientalist, Revolutionary, Liberal and National colors the different approaches.

        But there are certain clear facts that serious scholars cannot ignore or overlook!

  7. If you like you may visit my Face Book page and have a look at some of the Book covers by Dar Al Fata Al Arabi on my timeline. To show a part of the work I am referring to. You may pass it to Mathelid and Fatema Sharaf Eddine.

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