And even when children’s literature is translated, it’s generally from French or Spanish or German. If an adult reader looks hard enough, they can find forty-odd book-length Arabic literary translations targeted at adults published each year, as well as dozens of short stories and poems. However, it’s hard to scrape together even a spare handful of Arabic translations published for young readers.
I often feel that adults forget what children’s stories are capable of, whether in terms of emotional complexity or linguistic and literary inventiveness; it’s easy, I suppose, to get lulled into a false sense of simplicity. Writing for kids requires such discipline. Stories might be mysterious, but they will never be incomprehensible—and they will never be self-indulgent. (I wish I could say that about other kinds of writing.) And to a reader who is six or nine or twelve, eyes still wide open to the world, the possibilities offered by this writing are mind-altering. It is a lucky adult who can still be affected by reading as deeply as a child is. To those of you who are regrettably no longer children, I hope some of these stories might serve as a happy reminder of that.
Attentive readers of ArabLit will know I have a weakness for literature for young people, whether read aloud to my children or as my own secreted pleasure. One of the excerpts in WWB’s “Child’s Play” issue is from a book I greatly enjoyed: Hooda El Shuwa‘s تنين بيت لحم, (The Dragon of Bethlehem).
Hooda El Shuwa is a Kuwaiti-Palestinian writer living in Kuwait, winner of the 2008 Sheikh Zayed Book Award — in the Children’s Literature category — as well as Kuwait’s 2018 National Prize for Children’s Literature. Her books include The Birds’ Journey to Mount Qaf, The Animals vs the Humans at the Court of the King of the Jinn, The Yellow Man, The Secret Revealer, The Elephant’s Journey, Apollo on Gaza Beach, and The Dragon of Bethlehem.
In 2018, The Dragon of Bethlehem was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and the The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
The first three chapters ran on ArabLit last December; “The Appearance of the Dragon, and His Disappearance” is from later in the book. This chapter opens:
Khidr’s heart was pounding as he stepped into the house. It was almost sunset, and his mom wasn’t usually this late. Was she on an emergency visit to the hospital to see his dad?
Then a buzzing sound sliced through the sky above the camp. It was a familiar sound—the continuous whirring of a drone, the sound of the monster that harassed the camp without mercy. Its constant roar was punctuated by the whiz of bullets and the thunder of guns, which shook the windows of the house. Keep reading.