Enass Khansa and Bilal Orfali on Editing a Series of Classical Arabic Texts for Young Readers

In November 2019, the Library of Arabic Literature Young Readers series launched with Ḥiyākat al-kalāmwhich is built of selections from al-Tanūkhī’s Deliverance Follows Adversity, chosen by series editors Enass Khansa and Bilal Orfali, and illustrations by Lebanese artist Jana Traboulsi:

Enass Khansa is a scholar and translator. Assistant Professor in the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages at the American University of Beirut, Khansa is also a member of the Library of Arabic Literature editorial board. Bilal Orfali, also an LAL board member, is Professor and Sheikh Zayed Chair of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the American University of Beirut, as well as author and editor of many works, including The Anthologist’s Art.

Khansa and Orfali talked about how the LAL Young Readers series began, the texts out now, and where the series is going next. PDFs of the books can be downloaded free from the LAL website. The series is also supported by the Arab-German Young Academy.

You can also read more about it at al-Fanar’s “Series Brings Alive Classical Arabic Texts for Young Readers.”

How did this project begin? I saw that, in May 2018,  Jana Traboulsi gave a workshop titled “Weaving Words of Passion, Visions and Luck: Interpreting Islamic Abbasid Texts in Image” at the AUB, based around two stories you chose from al-Tanūkhī’s “Al-faraj ba’da al-shidda.” Is that where this project began?

Bilal Orfali: Let me tell you how the idea started. I’ve always liked a book by Wadād alQāḍī, called Mukhtārāt min al-nathr al-ʻArabī (Selections of Arabic Prose). I read it as a teenager, mostly, and it really sparked my interest in premodern Arabic. And as a kid you wouldn’t have access to these texts, because they appear in huge volumes, and so you need someone to anthologize them, to put them together, to categorize them.

So when I started studying Arabic literature, every time I would read a text that I liked, I would put it to one side, with the idea that, one day, I would do an anthology. I republished Wadād alQāḍī’s book, because it went out of print, and we started teaching it at the AUB [the American University in Beirut] and other places. 

And I never finished this project until Enass came to AUB, and, in one of our daily chats, she got interested in the project, and she said: Why not, let’s do it. Let’s publish these selected texts. She brought the idea of illustrating these texts, and at the time the Center for Arts and Humanities at AUB had funding that they needed to use before the end of the year, and this was how we did this workshop on al-Tanūkhī.

We did the workshop; yet, at the time, we were not going to publish these texts. But I was still a Library of Arabic Literature fellow, and I was chatting with [LAL’s General Editor] Philip Kennedy, and Philip was complaining that the Library of Arabic Literature books are not incorporated into the school systems. 

So I mentioned this project, and he said: Let’s do it, let’s fund it. This is how the series was born. Library of Arabic Literature makes things happen, and I’m very grateful.

And then you signed Jana Traboulsi to illustrate the first volume?

Enass Khansa: Yes. Jana doesn’t read classical Arabic, which was very exciting for us, because we wanted her to connect with these texts, and this made it part of the experiment for us, too, because we want to interest young people who feel they cannot read these texts. So what we did was we had long conversations about these stories, and about the idea that these stories have creative potential not just in the text, but around them, culturally. So: Can we reproduce that, and not simply reproduce the text?

Actually, what we did, Bilal and I, was we selected the stories, split them up, and did these small mini-lectures. We recorded for her why we selected each story and what element we thought stood out: Is it visual? Is it auditory? Is it a connection with the characters? So we gave her our impressions, and she re-interpreted that, visually. 

Bilal Orfali: We also hired a professional storyteller.

Yes, I listened to the stories on SoundCloud! I’m a big fan of Shalabieh Al-Hakawatieh (Sally Shalabi). 

BO: She’s also recording these stories for even a wider audience: kids before they go to bed. The idea was also to bring her to Abu Dhabi to perform at the Abu Dhabi Book Fair. Then of course Covid-19 started, and we had to cancel. 

Is she going to do all of them? 

BO: We’re uploading one every week. For Ḥiyākat al-kalām (Weaving Words), we recorded ten stories. For al-Hawāmil wa-al-shawāmil, we didn’t record any, because it’s a question-and-answer, it’s not a story.

Yes. The second book, Lima ishtadda ʿishq al-insān li-hadhā al-ʿālam?, drew its texts from the delightful philosophical volume al-Hawāmil wa-al-shawāmil, where philosophical questions are posed by al-Tawḥīdī (d. ca. 1023) to Miskawayh (d. 1030). You co-edited for the Library of Arabic Literature, and which was published as The Philosopher Responds. 

This seems like it would spark wonderful discussions in schools and beyond, because they’re simultaneously very philosophical and very grounded. When you send out the books, do they come with a lesson plan? 

Enass Khansa: Also, it’s important that they know that asking questions and debating certain ideas was required and expected. To think of this literature as analytical.

But how they use the books is up to them. In the introduction, we encourage different interpretations. The first volume, because it’s short stories, could easily be integrated into any class on Arabic language, literature, or history.

Have you tracked other ways the Lima ishtadda ʿishq al-insān li-hadhā al-ʿālam? and Ḥiyākat al-kalām are being used in classrooms? 

Bilal: People have also used it as textbooks for Arabic as a foreign language. For example, one of my friends who teaches Arabic in Istanbul said: I would like to use them in my Arabic classroom, for Turks. And my friends in the US have used it as content-based textbooks for Arabic literature in third-year Arabic. 

And at AUB, for example, we have a freshman class on philosophy. There, al-Hawāmil wa-al-shawāmil was very useful. Even if these answers are irrelevant, and even if they’re scientifically wrong—still, this was science at the time. And they make us think of how people in one thousand years will think about our science and how we look at things. 

What’s surprising is that we still ask many of the same questions, even if we have different ways and different strategies for answering these questions. Usually, we select our titles from a phrase in the book, and Lima ishtadda ʿishq al-insān li-hadhā al-ʿālam? (Why Did Humanity So Love This World?) was one of the questions that al-Tawḥīdī asked Miskawayh. 

And we thought it appropriate, because then Covid-19 started when we were publishing this book, and it’s about survival. It’s about why we love this world, and why we’re attached to it, so we decided to select this title.

You had this book in mind as a title for young readers from the time you were editing it for LAL? 

BO: No. But there were certain questions that Maurice and I as editors, or Sophia and I as translators, found very interesting. So we talked about them.

And while al-Hawāmil wa-al-shawāmil has very interesting questions and very interesting answers, I think the questions are even more important than the answers. I wanted to convey this to the kids in schools, that asking the question is as important as answering it, if not more important. 

And the third volume is selections from al-Naysābūrī’s ‘Uqalā’ al-Majānin (Wise Madmen), also coming shortly to the Library of Arabic Literature website.

BO: Yes. And we’re now doing a few other volumes, we’re doing one called Sadaqa, or Friendship, which is not a selection from one book. Instead, it’s an anthology that we’ve compiled from different books.

We’re also doing one from Akhbār al-naḥwīyīn (Biographies of the Grammarians). Kids usually hate grammar, and they look at grammar as being very dry, but it’s actually very lively, and so this text is a tribute to this intellectual tradition in Arabic. And they’re very funny texts—about grammarians as well. It’s to change the idea of how we look at grammar.

And one text that Enass is also compiling is on women, Akhbār al-nisā’ (Biographies of Women), and one is on cities, and one is on medieval cooking, and one is on al-Mutanabbī.

Enass Khansa: I think what we’re trying to do in each volume is to take a different approach. So for example Weaving Words is in the genre of very short, story-like narratives, and for this coming one, Friendship, the focus is not the topic, friendship, but instead on the nature of anthologies, how they mix poetry and prose, but also how you have the isnad and different sources that you cite. It interacts with form, but also meaning.

With each volume, we’re trying to do something different. So the series, in the end, is building something with each volume.

Bilal Orfali: And we work with different illustrators from Egypt, from Syria, from Lebanon, and from elsewhere. 

Enass Khansa: For example, for the forthcoming volume on women’s stories, it’s going to be illustrated in a comix style, and we’re doing it with this amazing artist, Lena Merhej.

Lena Merhej, that’s fantastic. For those who don’t know, she’s one of the co-founders of Samandal, and the author of the beautiful graphic novel Murabba w Laban (Jam and Yogurt).

EK: And we don’t tell the artists what to do; it’s a conversation. When I talked to Lena about the project, she was very excited, and she said, since women’s history is not as centered, she picked comix, a form also not mainstream.

What sort of mission do you give the illustrators when you start them out? 

Bilal Orfali: Often, we send the book to two or three illustrators, and we ask them to give samples, and then we select one. But sometimes, we give the project to a specific illustrator because of their previous work.

Enass Khansa: As in the case of Bilawhar.

Another forthcoming book.

From Bilawhar, forthcoming. Illustration by Ward AlKhalaf.

Bilal Orfali: Bilawhar is the story of Buddha, and it’s been illustrated so many times in so many cultures, in more than sixty different languages. But here we’re doing modern illustrations that speaks to the text as well. 

Enass Khansa: And the Egyptian illustrator Walid Taher, we gave him a poem by al-Mutanabbī, where the poet is saying there is no hope, I have nothing. And Walid turned it into something very colorful and playful, and we were amazed that he could read it this way. 

There is another artist who’s interested in the project, but who performs interpretations. So we’re also going in that direction, of experimental accompaniment. A couple that we’re thinking about, Kinan Azmeh and Kevork Mourad, do music and live illustration.

Also we’re planning a joint course at AUB, Bilal and me and Sahar Assaf, where it’s literature and performance. Weaving Words will be part of that. It will be available, accessible, and flexible, to be used in different ways.

BO: Often people think that the goal of the series is to give rebirth to these forms. But for me, it’s not this. For me, it’s how to interact with these texts, and what do we do with them now. These forms are there, but what do we do with them? What do we do with our heritage? How do we interact with it? How do we make it relevant? Do we even need to make it relevant? 

Enass Khansa: Something that I was aware of growing up in Syria, but more now that I’m in Lebanon, is that classical Arabic literature is associated with many things, but it’s not associated with being a space for creative and experimental thinking. So I think the main idea for both of us with this is experimental. 

And that’s why we’re medievalists. Because there is richness and potential that you can always interact with and read in new ways. 

This is not a heritage that we’re tied to. It’s ours, and we bring it back to life, or we read it anew. And it’s the same for kids.

You have experimented with the texts with your nieces, Bilal.

Bilal Orfali: Right. I often expose my nieces and nephews to these texts, and I ask them: What do you think? What text do you like? One niece illustrated these texts. Sometimes, we’ve had them select the cover. Because they should have a say—the book is for them, mostly, for their age group. 

I noticed, growing up in Lebanon, that there are so many books for children. There are also so many novels, or things to read as an adult. But there are very few books targeted at adolescent readers. And in Arabic this is where you lose these students, these readers of Arabic. They shift to Harry Potter, or to all sorts of texts that speak to them, and then it’s very hard to bring them back to Arabic.

I recently read a PhD thesis on Arabic literature for and about adolescents by Susanne Abou Ghaida, and she suggested that many teachers working in Lebanon don’t know what’s available in adolescent literature. So how can you reach out to teachers with these texts?

BO: One thing that I would really like to emphasize to teachers is to broaden their idea of form. It’s not only kharafa, it’s not only Alf Layla w Layla. We have to shed light on these correspondences, for example. On the genre of al-maqama, on the faraj bad al-shidda, on proverbs, for example. On risala.

Enass Khansa: There are so many genres in medieval literature. People say “classical literature,” and then they stop.

The idea of the series is also to bring out all these different genres. Each volume is focused on a different genre, and I think in Lebanon in particular there is this sharp divide—classical and modern. The idea of the series is also that we shouldn’t do that to people growing up, to say, This part of your culture is inaccessible, because it’s somehow not related to your life. 

Bilal Orfali: This is something Enass talk about in the seminars that we teach. We don’t categorize ourselves as working on the pre-modern. In my classes, I jump into the modern, I also do theory. I don’t give one seminar on pre-modern and one on modern. No. I don’t think of these divisions; I think of it as one continuum. 

In the Sadaqa (Friendship) volume that’s now complete and is being illustrated, we put a Quranic verse, and then a hadith, and then a proverb, and then a poem, and a risala, all together, in dialogue with each other around different themes. And it’s a space where all these genres play together. 

The Sadaqa volume will be the next one? The fourth book in the series?

Bilal: It’s being illustrated now, so yes, I think it will be the next one. 

How are you age banding the books? Are they targeted at different age groups?

Enass Khansa: With every book, we’re trying to think of a particular age. So for instance with Lima ishtadda ʿishq al-insān li-hadhā al-ʿālam?, the target is maybe 13+. 

Akhbār al-naḥwīyīn, maybe the grammarians will be for younger readers. We’re playing with the range a little bit and making it diverse as well.

And the illustrations for Ḥiyākat al-kalām (Weaving Words) also seemed designed for a slightly younger audience than Lima ishtadda ʿishq al-insān li-hadhā al-ʿālam?

From Ḥiyākat al-kalām.

EK: I would say as young as nine. 

Bilal Orfali: I think so, but people will interpret it differently. Ḥiyākat al-kalām is like Kalila w Dimna, in that it’s for all age groups. My nieces and nephews distributed the book to their peers in schools, and they enjoyed them. It was distributed widely in Lebanon; we sent the books to Morocco; we sent them to Syria, to Jordan. My mother also gave it to her friends, 50+, and they enjoyed it. So it’s for all age groups. 

Another aspect of these books is that the introductions are short, and they are quite light on footnoting. What kind of context do you think these texts need—and don’t need?

BO: One thing that I didn’t like about Wadād alQāḍī’s book (Mukhtārāt min al-nathr al-ʻArabī), is that she gave questions to the teachers to ask in the classroom. When I was teaching this book, I didn’t ask these questions. First, my interests are different from hers. Second, her questions relate to the 60s and 70s, as these were the questions of the time. My questions are different, because the genres that I read are different—because my world is different. 

I didn’t want to tie these books to a period, and I also didn’t want to impose my own questions on the readers. The idea was about how to interact with these texts in different ways, and not to give a specific lesson plan. 

Enass Khansa: I’d like to add something important, that Bilal and I decided from the very beginning, which is that we do not touch the text. We bring it back as is. Our intervention is in the selections, which was also the case in anthologies in medieval times.

Sometimes, you see these texts are changed; people add to them, they summarize them. For us, we didn’t do that.

Bilal Orfali: This is not a re-writing of classical Arabic. Some people think: Oh, it’s like a modernized Shakespeare. And no, this is not the project. We don’t want to change the language of these texts. We’re not against that project, but it’s not our goal.

Enass Khansa: Because the idea is to expand the scope of how we use language, how we think through literature. 

Bilal Orfali: One of the teachers at NYU Abu Dhabi, where the text is also being distributed, suggested adding footnotes on difficult words. But we tried to keep this very minimal because, to me, you don’t have to understand every word in the text. I don’t, and I’m a professor of Arabic. 

When I read in English, I don’t understand every word, but I still can guess the meaning, and I can understand the narrative. I also wanted the children to learn new vocabulary this way, without having to footnote everything for them.

Yes, it’s a very different way of learning vocabulary. One is from a one-to-one correspondence with a dictionary definition, and the other is more organically, from context.

BO: Also, we don’t vowel everything for them. Yes, we vowel more than the Library of Arabic Literature books usually do, and it’s true we give more punctuation than the other LAL books. But we also try to keep these minimal.

The illustrations should also assist people in understanding the text. So it’s text and image interacting. 

So there are three books finished now. Then Sadaqa and al-Mutanabbi.

BO: And Akhbār al-naḥwīyīn. And Akhbār al-nisā’And Bilahawr.

How many of these are you hoping to produce a year, and how many altogether.?

BO: Three or four books a year. 

There are some books that don’t materialize. We have ideas, we have texts, but we don’t find illustrators for them, so they’re on the shelf. I am thinking of it as a 10-book series, but you never know. Once we reach ten—which will happen very quickly, I think, next year—I might feel that no, I want to continue, I’m not done yet.

Enass Khansa: Sometimes we think of friends or scholars, and we think they can take over certain volumes, or be guest editors. So it’s our baby, but at some point we’ll let it be as inclusive as possible, to keep growing.

We are currently collaborating with Nawal Nasrallah, who has edited and translated medieval manuscripts on food. The series is going to grow in that direction—it’s going to be collaborative.

You have a project in the works with Nawal Nasrallah! Her translations and food blog are both amazing.

Bilal Orfali: I gave Enass the example [of Scents and Flavors] as a book from LAL that didn’t make any sense for us to anthologize, and she said: What are you talking about? My nephew is obsessed with cookbooks! 

We may think we know what teenagers want to read, but teenagers surprise us all the time with their interests.

Enass Khansa: The minute I told my nephew that, a thousand years ago, in the Arab world, in our tradition, people were writing cooking manuals, he started asking: Did they use spinach? Did they use this? Did they use that? This is going to be an exciting volume, and we have an amazing illustrator who’s going to do it for us.

When is that going to come out?

EK: Next year. 2021.

This really seems like a full-time job you’ve taken on!

Bilal Orfali: Well sometimes the world around us is disappointing. There’s Covid-19, the economic situation in Lebanon. This project feels like luxury right now in Lebanon. And it reminds me that what I do is meaningful and can have an influence on people’s lives.

Enass Khansa: I feel that I’m really lucky, because I have a job doing what I like to do, but I’m also surrounded by amazing people. And every time we meet, we’re making a new plan. It brings joy to me, too, to think that what we do with medieval literature is becoming available. 

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