A Talk with Susanne Abou Ghaida: What Do Teens Think of Arabic YA?

In her study, “The Arabic Adolescent Novel: Tracing Constructions of Adolescence within Texts and in the Discourses of Authors, Publishers and Readers,” Susanne Abou Ghaida looks at how young characters are constructed in Arabic YA, and how young readers interact with YA novels:

By M Lynx Qualey

Susanne Abou Ghaida’s doctoral thesis gives an overview of the landscape of Arabic novels for young readers, reproduces interviews with YA authors and publishers, and highlights what Abou Ghaida learned from her fieldwork with Lebanese teen readers.

She has long been involved in Arabic YA. In 2013, she was Programme and Development Manager at the UAE section of the International Board on Books for Young People (UAEBBY) and was involved in discussions around the launch of a YA category for the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature.

Abou Ghaida started her fieldwork with ten novels published largely in the last decade: Akher Al-Abwaab Al-Musada [The Last of the Shut Doors, 2011]; Cappuccino by Fatima Sharafeddine (2017); Falaafel Al-Naaziheen [The Falafels of the Displaced, 2010]; Faten by Fatima Sharafeddine (2010), which was translated to English as The ServantGhadi wa Rawan by Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj (2013), which was translated to English as Ghady & Rawan’Ismee Al-Harakee Faraasha by Ahlam Bisharat (2009/2015), which was translated to English as Code Name: ButterflyKhalf Al-Abwaab Al-Moqfala [Behind Closed Doors] by Samah Idriss (2014); Loghz ‘Ayn Al-Saqr [The Mystery of the Falcon’s eye] by Taghreed Najjar (2014); Masa by Hani Al-Salmi (2015); and Sitt Al-Koll [Against the Tide, 2013] by Taghreed Najjar.

The choice was then narrowed down to seven novels, because of the teacher’s concerns about the contents of three of the books. From among these seven, the students chose two — Cappuccino and The Mystery of the Falcon Eye — and read and discussed them in detail with Abou Ghaida.

Hopefully, this thesis will be forthcoming soon in book form. Meantime, Abou Ghaida answered a few questions it sparked.

Do we know anything about to what extent it’s young people who are reading Young Adult literature? Balsam Saad and Rania Hussein Amin once referred to a small survey in Egypt that said Egyptian teens were reading books like the thrillers of Ahmed Mourad, 1/4 Gram, and other genre literature written for adults. And I imagine some adults are reading YA? At the Sharjah Book Fair the year Faten came out, I was chatting near the Kalimat stand and observed several adult readers come to buy it for themselves.

Susanne Abou Ghaida: There is definitely cross-reading (if that’s the right term for it), or young people reading adult literature and vice versa. You mention Fatima Sharafeddine’s Faten, and I suspect that was also the case with her other novels as well as Noura Noman’s Ajwan, Qais Sedki’s The Gold Ring, Ahlam Bsharat’s My Nom de Guerre is Butterflyand Samah Idriss’s novels. My impression is that it happens more one way (young people reading adult literature) than the other, especially as there is so much more adult fiction than young adult fiction [Do surveys addressing adult readers even ask them if they are reading young adult or children’s literature?]. However, there isn’t much data so we can’t really talk of numbers and percentages.

I first began to wonder about which adult books young people were reading while attending the Sharjah and Abu Dhabi book fairs when I was working at the UAEBBY. I saw that a lot of young people were buying adult books, mainly bestsellers such as Kulthum Saleh’s Made in Jumeira and Atheer Al-Nashmi’s Ahbabtoka Akthar min ma Yanbaghi [I loved you more than I should have]. The UAEBBY also carried out a survey among young people (aged 11-15), and when they were asked to mention titles they have read, they were all adult titles. When I would talk to booksellers at book fairs, they said that they have observed something similar, and that horror was a particularly popular genre among young people. It would be interesting to talk to young people to see why that is the case.

However, the issue of who is buying what books gets a bit complicated with children’s and young adult literature because most of the time, there is an adult mediator between the book and the child/young person reading. Of course, that is the case everywhere and not just in Arab countries. If a librarian, for example, buys a book for his/her library, whom do we consider the final reader, and do we need to distinguish between the buyer and the reader?

What made 2000 a turning point for Arabic adolescent fictions?

SAG: In her PhD study on Arabic picturebooks, Mathilde Chèvre argues that the 2000’s witnessed a renaissance in children’s literature. Among the developments she noted in this period or a bit before, in the late 1990’s, was the emergence of new writers (Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj to mention just two names), the creation of new specialized children’s publishing houses (such as Asala in Lebanon; Kalimat in the UAE) or units (Tamer Institute for Community Education); established publishing houses intensifying their activities in this area (such as Dar al-Shorouk; Nahdet Misr), the existence of major well-funded international projects such as FSP (Fonds de Soutien Prioritaire) Lecture Publique Edition Jeunesse carried out in Lebanon and funded by the French Embassy or the Arab Regional Children’s Literature and Reading Program implemented in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, managed by the Anna Lindh Foundation in Egypt and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). Of course, this is not to discount authors, publishers, or initiatives that started earlier than this period.

As to why all these things were happening, I would say that at times, individual initiatives (both at the level of individual people or institutions) were coalescing rather than there was a grand national or regional plan unfolding. If you talk to these various people, as Mathilde Chèvre did for her research, they will mention a number of individual motivations; even with initiatives undertaken at the level of organizations, whether publishing houses or organizations establishing book prizes, they were driven in many, though not in all, cases by the vision of certain individuals.

One thing to keep in mind is that the changes mentioned by Chèvre were taking place over a period of ten years, happening at different times and places in different Arab countries. In addition, it would be simplistic to assume that there is a straightforward trajectory of progress. Rather, there appears to be periods of vigor followed by slumps lasting a number of years, often followed by periods of renewed vigor due to a wide array of factors. The Arab publishing sphere has always been sensitive to national and regional political and economic events, and it is the same case with children’s literature.

If we go with Chèvre’s thesis that the 2000’s were a period of a renaissance in Arabic picturebooks, and I am personally convinced by this, there was then a spill-over effect on Arabic adolescent fiction. While the authors, publishers, and book prizes she mentions started by focusing on children’s literature and younger readers, they eventually also turned their attention to adolescents. Some did this relatively quickly. For example, Samah Idriss published Qissat Al-Koussa [The Story of the Courgette] from his Boy from Beirut series in 2004, and in 2005, he published his first novel for adolescents, Al-Maljaa [The Shelter]. For other authors such as Rania Hussein Amin, Samar Mafhouz Barraj, and Fatima Sharafeddine, this transition took a bit longer.

If we shift the focus to publishers, Kalimat were established in 2007 and a few years later, they published their first Arabic, non-translated novels for adolescents. One was Faten, Fatima Sharafeddine’s first novel for adolescents while the other was Rym Ghazal’s Maskoun [Haunted]. Of course, they later established a special imprint for adult and young adult literature in 2012, Rewayat. At the level of prizes, Etisalat Award was launched in 2009 and created a special category for adolescent literature five years later in 2013.

As you quote Taghreed Najjar as saying in your study, there are not well-defined categories when it comes to literature for young people in Arabic. In English, there are relatively rigid understandings of the format for a picture book, chapter book, middle grade, and YA, as well as gradations within them. This does allow a certain flexibility for the Arab author, but there are also downsides for teachers, parents, and young people who are looking for books they will enjoy. Do you think more definition and shared expectations of these categories in Arabic would be useful? How would people go about standardizing them, if that was important? 

SAG: There are some categories, especially “middle grade books” that do not yet have a proper title in Arabic, and the Arab general public might not necessarily be familiar with the names of categories that do exist, such as qisas musawwara (picture books) or riwayat lil-yafi’een (and that’s just one of many titles used for adolescent novels). However, what is currently happening is that buyers ask about targeted age groups, and most publishers include this information on the books themselves and in their book catalogs. Of course, one can always raise questions about how standardized and accurate these designations are. Ideally, guardians would use these as general guides but ultimately base their own opinions on how the books are received by their children. Then, there are graded reading schemes that categorize books based on the complexity of the language.

I, personally, have very mixed feelings about age banding. On the one hand, they can be too restrictive and overly prescriptive, and children need to be allowed room to explore their own tastes and language levels and not be stigmatized for their choices. On the other hand, you find in some books such a mismatch between the supposed age group targeted and the language, subject matter and illustrations that you start to see the merit of standardized categories. Of course, I understand how useful they also are for publishers as they make it easier to sell books.

Most of the issues facing Arab YA authors seem to be shared around the world, to greater or lesser degrees. I imagine a great many teachers worry about content that will incite a reaction among parents or administrators; even the issue of colloquial languages is probably a common one. (Use of African American Vernacular English in books in the US, for instance.)

Is it possible that other gatekeepers (prizes, reviewers) might shift reactions toward content or language a little, or give teachers an extra tool, to say, “Yes, it has colloquial, but this won a prize / was well-reviewed?” Or what sorts of things might help a teacher be just a tiny bit bolder in choosing books for a class? (I was delighted to read in your study, for instance, that author Samar Mahfouz Barraj went and had a meeting with a school principal to support the use of Ghady & Rawan in the classroom.)

SAG: If we are talking in general, there needs to be more education for teachers and librarians about children’s and adolescent literature. As far as I know, there is mostly the odd children’s literature course here and there, but there are very few, if any, full programs dedicated to the topic. All those who are knowledgeable about Arabic children’s literature became that way through personal effort, seeking out books here and there, following people (authors, publishers, book influencers) on social media, and buying books at their own expense. Teachers should be learning about Arabic and non-Arabic children’s and adolescent literature and have straightforward access to books (without always needing to buy the books themselves). They should be reading these books and making their own minds up. Finally, the most important thing is to share books with young people and listen to them. Don’t just make prior assumptions about them or treat them like a monolith. The teacher I worked with was very gracious in expressing how pleasantly surprised she was by the level of maturity shown by her students, and she felt that the fact that the project gave them space to express themselves made all the difference.

Concerning the use of colloquial Arabic, that was a major issue constantly brought up by the students themselves during the fieldwork although their attitude mirrored that of their teacher who had quite a hard-line approach to the matter. This made me more convinced of the need to develop better awareness of language beyond the background that students get in Arabic grammar and linguistics. For example, the students repeatedly mentioned the excessive use of Colloquial Arabic in Fatima Sharafeddine’s Cappuccino, but they were not able to give one valid example (and to her credit, their teacher was knowledgeable enough to point out when one word they objected to was actually correct Standard Arabic). I think they mistook Fatima’s accessible and simple literary style for Colloquial Arabic when it wasn’t that. At least, with Loghz Ayn Al-Saqr [The Mystery of the Falcon Eye], Colloquial Arabic (Palestinian dialect) was actually used in the dialogue; they weren’t wrong there. This shows that they are not really aware of the existence of different registers in Standard Arabic itself or always know when something is Colloquial or Standard Arabic. And I don’t believe that the intention behind building this awareness should be to either promote greater acceptance of Colloquial Arabic or dissuade people from using it. Rather, it is to understand the variety of choices available to the writer of a text and the implications of the linguistic level or register used for the communication of an idea; that neither level is exclusively one thing all the time (beautiful; eloquent; accessible; inclusive).

I was surprised — but then un-surprised — that students initially disapproved of colloquial Arabic. I suppose their discussions mirror many adult descriptions and perceptions of beneficial (standard) v. “ugly” (colloquial). But they also seemed quite flexible in their ideas. To what extent do you think their ideas changed through the process of airing them aloud?

SAG: To begin with, the context plays an important role. I was doing fieldwork in a school, a space that does not really make space for Colloquial Arabic or acknowledge its existence. By putting the topic of diglossia on the table for discussion, I think that some of the students’ ideas did change, just maybe not as dramatically as might first appear. In some cases, their ideas became more clear and refined (acceptance of some Colloquial Arabic but only to a certain extent); others felt more confident admitting they enjoyed reading the supposedly Colloquial passages, and, yes, maybe some did change their minds a bit. Of course, others stuck to the same position.

Like I said earlier, we need to learn to talk about language in a more sophisticated way, while acknowledging the ideological nature of these discussions.

I am delighted that you let the participants choose, and that they selected Cappuccino by Fatima Sharafeddine (2017) and The Mystery of the Falcon Eye by Taghreed Najjar (2014) from a longlist of seven options. Do you think it would be possible to run an Arabic literary prize that was judged by teen readers? 

SAG: Of course, it is possible and is happening to some extent with the Kitabi prize run by the Arab Thought Foundation. In my dream project, this is how I would do it: You would need to start with a pre-selected list, whether one tied to an existing prize like Etisalat or Kitabi or one compiled especially for the project. Then you need groups of young readers in different countries. The network of schools already developed through the Arab Reading Challenge can be a starting point. Given how tricky book distribution is among Arab countries, you need to factor in the time needed to buy the books or have them posted to different places. The most important thing is to give young people time to read the books and the freedom to have different winners in different countries. Equally important is their having spaces where they can share their opinions in whatever form they choose, whether in writing or via video, whether individually or in groups of readers. While authors or books would be competing against each, there should be no competitive aspect involving the young readers- they get enough of that nonsense in school. Rather, we need to develop more collaborative and creative methods of working. It will also be nice if the students can get something out of it; maybe, a trip to meet some of the authors or book donations to schools, libraries, or NGOs of their choosing.

 You argue that self-censorship (worry about schools & other gatekeepers) is a larger factor than external censorships when it comes to literature for young people… But then you note Code Name: Butterfly was not given permission in UAE, and that Ghady & Rawan faced challenges in schools, and I well remember what happened to Wondrous Journeys. Why do you posit self-censorship as more central? Do you see it as looming larger than it does for adult-focused authors? Are writers for young people more willing to examine self-censorship, vis a vis authors who write for adults?

 SAG: Self-censorship is a major issue for both adult authors and young adult authors, due to factors that affect Arab publishing in general (the fact that censorship bureaus exist; more socially conservative societies; ideological and political differences that play out in censorship practices). However, you need to remember the major way that these two publishing industries differ in that children’s and adolescent literature target the child and young person, both figures around which there are so many conceptions, desires and fears. As a result, there is an innate drive to protect and socialise this group of people, which on the one hand, explains why institutions such as schools, the major market of these books, can be especially conservative (along with the neo-liberalisation of education in many countries) and why authors themselves make it a point to treat their subject matters responsibly while also taking into account what they are allowed to get away with. One interesting linguistic issue here is the differences between the English word for censorship and the Arabic one, raqaba, which suggests to watch or observe. There is definitely a watchful aspect to writing and publishing for children and young people.  

Your research could be so helpful in many different areas: for teachers, for librarians, for policymakers, for aspiring authors. If you could magically (with no time involved) make summaries of it for different sectors, who/which sectors do you think would benefit the most from reading it?  

SAG: I hope that people working in all these different sectors can find the research interesting and benefit from it in some way. I also think that as academics, we need to try to make our work accessible to the widest range of readers, especially in research such as mine that has clear educational implications. This is something that I am exploring on a personal level, whether it is through writing more general interest articles as well as writing more in Arabic. One thing I would definitely like to do is share the methodologies I used to get the responses of students to these two books with teachers and librarians. I have a set of activities, not just for these two books but for eight others as well.

Do we have any ideas about sales numbers / growth in the MG / YA publishing sectors in the last 20 years?

 SAG: I have to admit that I did not ask publishers for this information, but I am sure they have it and I hope they would trust me enough to share it if I were to ask for it. Maybe for certain titles. However, this data will probably not give an idea of the breakdown of buyers by age or gender, which might also be interesting to have.

You have very clearly made the case that more research should be done around all of these issues. If someone were to give you a large research grant and you could support several projects in the field of Arabic literature for adolescent readers, what would they be?

SAG: Oh, there is so much that needs to be done. To begin with, I think we still need a proper history of Arabic children’s literature and adolescent literature that is based on archival work, that takes into account how Arabic literature developed in the different countries (rather than just focusing on certain figures and countries and ignoring others) while also acknowledging works that had a more regional spread (a prime example would be the Mahmoud Salem series whether Shayateen al-13 [The 13 Devils] or the Five Adventurers [Al-Mughamiroon Al-Khams], the latter originally based on the Enid Blyton’s series The Five Find-Outers. Luckily, there are some existing histories and studies that can be built upon. Fatima Sharafeddine once gave a presentation about Arabic adolescent literature at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair that showed that this sort of literature has existed since the early twentieth century at the very least.

I am also interested in the industry side of things, because you can’t really understand what’s inside the books without being knowledgeable of the dynamics of their production. The thesis includes a chapter on this in which I examine what the cycle of book production and distribution looks like in the Arab World, but I think more survey-style research is needed with more authors and publishers. Existing reports on reading and publishing tend to talk about the industry at large or sometimes deliberately side-line children’s literature. The only study I know that focuses exclusively on children’s literature is Sherine Kreidieh’s PhD Thesis on Lebanese publishing for children.

One thing that also interests me in postcolonial dynamics in this category. How do authors deal with the existence of a more developed Western tradition? Is it taken as a standard, ignored or opposed?

Finally, where there is the biggest gap is research with children and young people beyond surveys about their reading tastes. What I mean are studies where specific books are discussed with children and they have a chance to present their views at some length. It can be their reading of adolescent literature or adult fiction for that matter, as they seem to be reading that more. There are only a handful studies that have done this in the Arab world although students are probably discussing books often in classrooms and Q and A discussions with authors. However, these are not documented and more systematic research is also needed (and it is very exciting to carry out!)

I have written an article in Arabic on sexuality in Arabic adolescent fiction to be published as part of the proceedings of The Development of Criticism Approaches in Arabic Children Literature [sic] conference organized by Tamer Institute for Community Education in 2018.

Also read:

Mathilde Chevre’s book, Le Poussin n’est pas un Chien: Quarante ans de création arabe en literature pour la jeunesse, reflect et project des sociétés (Egypte, Syrie, Liban), is currently only available in French. However, Editions Snoubar Beyrouth are putting the final touches on an Arabic translation of the study.