YA Novelist Sonia Nimr on Discovering and Reinventing the Treasure of Palestinian Folktales

Palestinian historian, academic, and award-winning author Dr. Sonia Nimr has written more than a dozen books for young readers, including the 2014 Etisalat Prize for Arabic Children’s Literature-winning YA novel Wondrous Explorations in Strange Nations* (Rihlat Ajeeba fi al-Bilad al-Ghareeba): 

sonianimr2Dr. Nimr spoke at the festival, with author Kevin Crossley-Holland, about “Myth and Mythconception,” saying that she was born in the 1950s and raised by her mother, who raised her logically and “by the book.” Her mother took her from a young age to Nablus to buy books, but these were “never magical tales, never folktales.”

While her mother did nurture her imagination, Nimr said, it was only later that she thought about why the neighbor’s daughter knew all these stories about djinn and that she sought the treasure that was all around her. “When I sought it,” she said, “it was like Alaa al-Deen going into his cave” in the 1,001 Nights.

In addition to her children’s and YA books in Arabic, Nimr has one full-length book in English, Ghaddar the Ghoul and Other Palestinian Stories, as well as a collaboration with UK author Elizabeth Laird. Also, courtesy of Ibby UK, you can watch Dr. Nimr’s fun and funny oral storytelling in English and in Arabic on YouTube.

While at the 2017 Emirates LitFest for a series of workshops and events. Dr. Nimr also answered a few questions for ArabLit.

You began writing in an Israeli prison in the mid-1970s?

Sonia Nimr: I wrote two stories when I was in Israeli prison, but both were confiscated. Then I thought, Ah! I could write children’s books.

Why children?

SN: I didn’t know then. I just felt: This is what I want to write. I was 20 then.

Later, when I was at the British Museum, I wrote two stories in English, and both are based on Palestinian folktales. They were not published [in English], so they were published in Arabic in 1996 by Tamer Institute.

And you know now, why you chose to write for children?

SN: I turned 62 yesterday, but I am 16. I never tried to suppress the child inside me — I kept it always there. It pops up every now and then, in books and otherwise. I’m a professor at Birzeit University, and there again sometimes the child comes up in my lectures.

What’s the relationship between you as a historian who has gathered oral histories, and you as an author of books for young people?

SN: Oral history is my professional career. But I’m sure meeting people and listening to their stories must have affected me one way or another, although I did not collect stories.

You said, in a journal article, that Palestinian folktales and traditional storytelling suffered a setback in the refugee camps.

SN: After 1948, when people went to the camps, they needed different, realistic stories. Not because they don’t like folktales. Because they wanted to revive the Palestine they lost. So these [folktales] were substituted by stories of how we left Palestine, the journey of suffering: how was it in our homeland, our homes, our gardens.

And you’re bringing back folktales?

SN: I can’t pretend that I’m bringing them back, because there are academics who have studied them in proper anthropological books.

As far as I’m concerned, I want to bring back folktales to the children in a new form. Having said that, the original ones are not always polite and they’re not always politically correct. So what I’m trying to do is to rewrite the folktales — I keep the spirit, the magic, but at the same time I rewrite it…to be approved by librarians.

Are there red lines that hold you back?

SN: No, not really. For one reason: Folktales in Palestine were not told for children, they were told for adults. The old women who told stories never refrained from mentioning body parts, bodily functions. This doesn’t hold me back, it just gives me the opportunity to reform the story.

If wanted to keep the story in its original form, I would put it in an anthropology book.

You do wonderful live storytelling. And, in your books, you use techniques that seem to come from the world of oral storytelling: repetition, patterning.

SN: In children’s books I try to keep rhyme. Sometimes, I feel the music in the story creates more interest in the story. Not in the young adults, of course.

But definitely, rather than writing a story, I’m telling the story. It’s storytelling rather than story-writing.

Both when you do children’s and young adult?

SN: Yes, both.

When you read my books in Arabic, you’re listening to a story, actually. This is how I like to write.

How do you feel your way through the relationship between fos7a (Modern Standard Arabic) and 3ameya (colloquial, spoken Arabic) when you’re writing books for children?

SN: This was a big argument back in Palestine. Most of my children’s books were written in colloquial. At the same time, they’re not heavy colloquial. They’re closer to the standard Arabic — but they are in colloquial. I thought: If I want to write in rhyme, in colloquial, then I’m keeping the music and the magic. Children relate more to colloquial. Not because colloquial is better, but because standard Arabic, for some children, reminds them of…


SN: Schoolbooks. And they don’t like schoolbooks, because they’re boring. But then again it depends on the type of story I’m telling, because some of my books are not in colloquial but in standard Arabic.

Palestinian children’s and YA literature is a more vibrant space than literature for young people in most other Arab-majority countries. Why is that? Tamer Institute?

SN: Not only Tamer Institute. For the past 20 years or so, we’ve realized how important it is to give a different literature to children. Think of it as part of the resistance. Well, it’s not like it’s my agenda to resist. But somehow it’s in the background that we want to give the children something different.

Life is bleak in Palestine under occupation. It’s not a happy life. So children’s writers try to make their stories not only vibrant, but also colorful, magical. To let the children know there are other worlds.

How can Arabic children’s & YA literatures reach more audiences and become more accessible?

SN: Actually, one thing I have to say for Tamer Institute is that they distribute children’s books to all schools, even to Gaza.

Unfortunately, though, not all countries have this. What difference does it make, having real children’s literature in the schools, vs. just textbooks?

SN: In the past 10 years, [Palestinian] children have started to have book discussions, which is really nice. It gives you, as an author, feedback — usually honest feedback — from children. Also, the whole idea of discussing books means that your opinion matters. And that helps them understand that children matter and their opinions matter.

What about the problem of distribution? Children’s books are distributed well inside Palestine, but what about other countries?

soniaSN: It is a problem because, for example, I know this book won the Etisalat Prize (Rihlat Ajeeba fi al-Bilad al-Ghareeba), but I would to see people from Egypt, Morocco, or Saudi Arabia to read my books.

But they can’t get hold of them.

SN: They could be available. For example, in the Emirates, the Ministry of Education bought the book, and they want to distribute it in schools, with some editing. Now it’s more polite.

Oh. There’s an edited version for the schools?

SN: I had to weigh it: accept the editing or not have the book read by a large number of students. So I agreed to it, although I don’t find the editing necessary. I made this book for teenagers, which means you can’t not talk about love. And they changed bar to a coffee shop, for example.

For example, she [the narrator] has to go and meet pirates. So if she’s going to go and meet pirates, she has to go meet pirates in the pirates’ bar. There’s no coffee shop for pirates.

It saddened me, actually. But at least the main events are there, and I hope the girls will get the message that they can have the power to do anything once they set their mind to it.

Do you put a message into your book, or does it just come out that way?

SN: No, no, it just comes out. If I put a message, it becomes like a textbook.

There are many Arabic children’s books with a message…

SN: And I hate that. It’s not my job to put the wisdom of my life into a book, nor to give advice. They have enough of that at school! It’s good enough for me if they enjoyed it.

At the end of it, they must get something out of it. But I don’t have a message to send. No, I have a story to tell.

Do prizes matter in developing more YA literature?

SN: I’m not sure, actually. I have a new book out called The Phoenix. Since it was published two months ago, I’ve already had several meetings with children and young adults, at schools and libraries, to get their feedback and to discuss the book with them. For me, this is what matters.

Forget about the adults, because the adults have their own weird, cynical ideas. But young adults get the book the way you really want to say it.

You wouldn’t write a book for adults?

SN: Oh, I’ve been writing one; I haven’t finished it yet.

It’s not exactly a novel, nor is it a memoir. It’s: How did I see Palestine as I was growing up? As I was growing up, Palestine changed, I changed.

Do you use your personal stories when writing for children?

SN: No. My personal stories don’t matter, actually. I want to tell them something different. But on the other hand, I’m sure that somehow, even when I write for young adults, I come up somehow, one way or the other: commenting on things, making a joke here and there, which is my personality.

What kind of feedback do you get from kids?

SN: For example, last week, I was in Bethlehem. I had a book discussion at the Aida Refugee Camp.

So these kids were from a refugee camp, thirty of them. They were very excited to tell me what they thought of the book. They were disappointed about the ending, but then they were satisfied because I told them there are three parts, and this is not the end. Of course some of them had suggestions. Some of them had really good ideas.

Would you ever take advice from child readers?

SN: Some of them I can’t use. For example, if you have a bad wife or a bad stepmother, they want revenge. But with other ideas, some of them I’m going to use in my next book.

Can you say what they are?

SN: For example, one girl said: You used djinn in the book. Why don’t you talk about the world of the djinn? In the book it says the worlds of the humans and the djinn should be kept separate. She said, But you’re a writer, you can do both worlds. And I thought, Yes!

Are you going to write about the world of the djinn?

SN: I might, actually.

What are the books you read as a child, a teenager?

SN: Until I became a teenager, we did not have a bookshop or a library in my town. So when I was a little girl, my mother used to take me to Nablus, where she bought me books. I still remember the first book, and I was five. After that, I developed a passion for reading. Because we didn’t have libraries or bookshops, I read anything that I could get my hands on: Hugo, Dickens, Mahfouz.

Do you have a favorite?

SN: A writer is my favorite while I’m reading him or her.

Do you have advice for young writers?

SN: Passion first. And foremost. And fun. If you don’t have fun while writing, nobody will have fun reading. Apart from that, everybody can learn. But you need to have fun and you need to be passionate.

*The translation in use is Wondrous Journeys in Strange Lands, if you’d like to look it up, but I gave myself license to capture the rhyme.