Yara Bamieh and Samar Mahfouz Barraj on Creating Award-winning Arabic Children’s Books

Yara Bamieh is the author-illustrator behind Bolqosh, winner of the 2016 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, while the equally award-winning Samar Mahfouz Barraj — author of 60 books to day — has been recognized with four Etisalat Awards in the prize’s short history. Both were at this year’s Emirates LitFest:

Samar Mahfouz Barraj and Yara Bamieh

By Hend Saeed

Palestinian Yara Bamieh a talented architect and author-illustrator who has brought out a number of children’s books, including Bolqosh, which won an Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature in 2016.

Samar Mahfouz Barraj a Lebanese author-translator who has penned dozens of books for children. A few of her award-winning texts include When My Friend Got Sick, My Grandmother Will Always Remember Me, Red Line, and My Friend. She also co-authored the acclaimed Ghady and Rawan with fellow Lebanese author Fatima Sharafeddine.

This year, Bamieh participated in three sessions at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, including “Dream a Story” alongside  Barraj, while Barraj participated in two other sessions, “Fun with Wassem” and a masterclass on literary translation into Arabic.

Hend Saeed: You, Yara, are an architect and illustrator. The professions are close but different. How do the two relate?

Yara Bamieh: I studied architecture because I love drawing, but the more I studied architecture, the more I liked drawing and illustration, which I discovered during my studies and then started to develop my skills in illustration. I illustrated my first book after graduation and managed to work in both.

Now, I am working in renovation with a project called “Al Rowaq,” where we renovate old historical buildings in some Palestinian villages, using the same old materials that were used in building these houses. I find this work inspiring.

HS: Are your illustrations sometimes inspired by your work in renovation?

YB: Not when I first started illustrating. Then, I managed to separate my work from my illustration. But lately I can see myself trying to combine the two together, especially while doing sketches of old buildings, but it is still an experiment.

HS: You wrote Bolqosh in a clever way, with upside-down pages and overturned words. Where did the idea come from? And what is “Bolqosh”?

YB: The idea came from children. When children start talking, they play with the letters and words — sometimes they overturn the words and the letters, and they enjoy doing that. They might reverse the world, saying it from back to front, or change the word’s place in a sentence. When children do this, they make us look at the world in a different way.

I also love Arabic letters, and I wanted to draw the letters and the words and that worked well in the book, and the children loved it.

Bolqosh is an imaginary character and its name has no meaning, but if you read it from the last letter to the first then it means upside-down.

I would like to add that the book was written during Palestine Writing Workshop project. The project has a number of writers and illustrators, and each one works on their own project, but we’re all in one place helping to share ideas and thoughts. That helped me to bring Bolqosh to its final version, which is different from when I started with it.

HS: This is a question for both of you. You had a session for children called “Dream a Story” together, as a writer and illustrator. How these sessions benefit the children?

YB: I think this is a good opportunity for children to see how the book works. When I was young, I was amazed by books, with all their illustrations, and I didn’t know how it worked. So it’s nice for children from a young age to understand how the story is put together, and I worked with Samar before, so I understand her work.

Samar Mahfouz Barraj: Yes, I agree. I think children will enjoy it, and they will see how it works when a writer and illustrator work together. We start with sketches, then we add to it slowly, as I read and Yara illustrates.

I’ve heard different views about how children’s-book writers and illustrator should work together. What do you think about it?

SMB: The work is different with each illustrator. Yara worked on my book Nice Visitor, but when she submitted the illustrations to me and the publisher, we thought it would frighten the children, and we asked her to change in it, and she did.

So sometimes the writer knows better and sometimes the illustrator can add something extra without changing the meaning of the book. Some illustrators will not agree on any change, but I usually insist, if the meaning of the book is totally changed by the illustration.

Some publishers don’t let the writer communicate with the illustrator, as maybe they’re afraid of clashes between them. Sometime we receive the illustrations very late, just before publication, and there’s no time to change. I think there should be a meeting between the writer and illustrator at the beginning, to allow the writer to explain his or her idea to the illustrator.

YB: It’s very important to meet or communicate with the writer before and sometimes after the illustration.

An illustration isn’t just sketched to explain the story, but it takes the story to another level, and it’s the combination of the text and the pictures that make the story. The best books convey their meanings to the children in a simple but powerful way, using both words and pictures. Sometimes there are things you can explain in words, and sometimes we need pictures.

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 translator, life consultant, and book reviewer.