Syrian author Muhannad Al-Aqous’s The Green Braids is shortlisted for this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the Children’s Literature category. Hend Saeed looks at his earlier middle-grade novel, When Black Laughs:
By Hend Saeed
Muhannad al-Aqous is a Syrian author of children’s stories with poetic and colorful language. Most of his stories are about children who faces challenges in life, such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award-longlisted The Green Braids, a story about a young girl with cancer. His stories unfold in a simple yet powerful way, teaching us about those children’s challenges. The same is true of his middle-grade novel, When Black Laughs.
In When Black Laughs, we immediately notice the importance of the language of colors, which starts with the title and continues throughout the book:
My dad says, “Black is the master of the colors, and he is, like White, a beautiful emptiness, and it’s we who fill it in. I had to be worthy of Black, as Black was not laughing like Green, nor smiling with Yellow; not as angry as Red nor surrendering, like Blue. This is a kingdom unknown to many, a kingdom looking for worthy king to control it.”
At the center of the book is the story of Nooraddeen, who is partially blind and loves colors and math, but doesn’t like it when people tease him about his thick classes and call him “four eyes,” nor when children laugh at him in class when he can’t see the blackboard and falls over when he walks toward it. Yet he walks back with pride after he manages to solve a math problem. Nooradeen is frightened by his daily nightmare, where the geometric shapes attacks his green eyes, and he has no power to defend himself, apart from reciting Um Issa charms.
But after he hits the ball with his head, and scores the winning goal at a football match, he goes blind. His nightmare stops, but now he faces a life with darkness. The family goes into shock and his parents don’t know how to react or what to do, burying themselves in their sadness, with his dad spending most of his time in his workshop, sad, while his mother fights her tears and his brother feels lost.
As for Nooraddeen, he refuses to do anything and stays in bed. What makes it worse is the sympathetic messages he gets from his friends and family who visit him; words that penetrate him like knives cutting into his soul.
That is, until Mr. Issam, the school counselor, and his daughter Noor visited Nooraddeen and encourage him to go back to school and find new ways to achieve his goals. Noor visits Nooraddeen every day, helping him with his homework, and life starts coming back into his house when he returns to school. His brother becomes his guardian and his dad creates a caricature based on Nooraddeen, which latter turns into a cartoon.
The novel starts with Nooraldeen around the age of 9 or 10, and it continues until he’s high-school-aged, and then takes us quickly and briefly from that time till he becomes a father. As a young adult novel, I think it overreaches the time important for this group, but his second part of life could be a good novel.
The novel talks about the challenges that face people with special needs, and how what we say to them can sometimes destroy their soul. It is about determination, the support of one’s family, and of other people in the community.
Throughout the novel, we can feel the strong bonds between the parents and their children. There is a relaxed atmosphere where they tell jokes and laugh together, and a glimpse of first love between Nooraldden and Noor.
I enjoyed reading the book and loved the opening scene with its imaginative language. I am fan of children’s and young adult books that have indirect messages, like this one. The book is suitable for children between the ages of 10-14 years, the age when they need to understand the challenges of people with disabilities.
I think the book should be translated, as it is a universal story that can happen anywhere in the world, as the struggle and the challenges, as well as the family love and support, are almost the same everywhere, so it will be understood by any child who read it in any language.
an excerpt from When Black Laughs
The night before the catastrophe
by Muhannad al-Aqous, translated by Hend Saeed with M Lynx Qualey
A ball of light swam in space like a bright planet, dancing across the theatre of the horizon, surrounded by its silent audience of colorful planets. It was like a magnet of light, attracting thousands of stars.
The ball swallowed everything until it grew to the size of a giant beast, then rolled like a snowball in its steady orbit, moving toward its inevitable destiny.
It came out of the darkness, speeding train-like up and down, ignoring the rules of the road. It was the stupid blind comet without crutches, so how could it go out alone in the night mazes?
I screamed, alerting the ball: “Beware, you’ll hit the comet!” But no one could see me or hear my voice, as the space before the explosion was like a forest of blindness and deafness.
It doesn’t matter who hit who. Here, there were no traffic cops or courts to punish the guilty. But the explosion of the ball and light was very loud.
Lights came from all directions, and I thought: Is this a New Year’s celebration? But Santa hadn’t come nor had the gifts shown up.
The shrapnel scattered its different shiny, geometric shapes: triangles, squares, parallelograms, circles, and rectangles. And while they had different degrees, they all united to execute an urgent mission.
I was lying on the bed in front of the window as I witnessed a universal war. As I breathed in and out, my chest turned to a pressure cooker.
I opened my eyes from the dream to reality, but I was unable to move.
I was lying like a corpse, my open eyes watching what was happening through the window, as the geometric shapes laughed like children on a swing. It was a tsunami of scary laughs, and I was on the beach, not knowing how to escape.
Had the Color War started? But each war has two sides or more, so who was the enemy? Was it the war of color against color?
I heard colors competing to rule the spring, but how could brothers – all from one source – fight each other?
Oh, rainbow, you have become an orphan! Here, your colors are leaving you naked to face the wind. How can we see you after today, without a colorful dress covering your thin body?
Or maybe it was the war between the geometric shapes! I read that the reason behind the “Third World” was poverty, so perhaps 180 degrees was not enough for the triangle, and he tried to steal 360 from the circle, and maybe some of the geometric shapes would form alliance to overthrow the squares and parallelograms from ruling the world of geometry. Has space been infected by the civil and sectarian wars?
But the scene has destroyed all my assumptions. The colored geometric shapes look like an organized army. Is earth going to face a colorful geometric invasion?
Slowly, I recognized that the attack was against me, and I saw myself part of an unequal battle, and me with no weapons apart from my Um Issa charms.
I started reading the charms quickly:
Oh colors, Oh colors
Your shadow is made of seven colors
Be in the artist’s paint
Don’t harm a child in pain
But the geometric shapes didn’t believe in Um Issa charms, so they continued their skyrocketing attack.
I covered my face with my two small palms and screamed for help, but these geometric shapes penetrated the window and passed through my hands, to invade my green eyes, like a hungry grasshopper invading a farm of green.
Like someone who’d escaped a car accident, I sat on my bed, breathing heavily. The raindrops tapped on the room’s ceiling in harmony, and the wooden door opened, its hinges making a noise like my dad’s snoring. My mother entered the room to fill it with tranquil oxygen.
She hurried to hug me, and I felt the earth regain its balance.
My mother’s voice was like the sound of minaret in a mosque and bells in a church, and her lap made peace like the mosque or churchyard.
-“Is it the same nightmare, Nouraddeen?”
-“Yes, Mother. Why do the colors attack me? What makes them invade my eyes? I’m tired of them, and I want them out of my life for good.”
-“Even the shapes love your beautiful eyes, my darling. But don’t worry, it’s just a dream.”
-“But it’s the same nightmare every day.”
-“You’re very sensitive, my young ox, and you look for meaning in everything.”
-“Didn’t you ask me to discover your star sign? We were both born in April, and our star sign is the Ox. Do you want to fight with me, with your two horns?” Mother laughed.
-“But I am a weak lamb in these nightmare wars, not a scary ox. What’s an ox like?”
“Patient like a camel, sensitive like a lovebird, talented like a butterfly, and loved by everyone like the smell of the flower.”
-“Okay, butterfly, fly to your husband.”
Mother laughed. “And the ox is naughty like you. Try to sleep.”
My mother left the room and I stayed alone with the rain.
Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translatore, life consultant, and book reviewer.