Every Tuesday during #WorldKidLit Month, we’re using this space to talk about literary works aimed at young readers:
By M Lynx Qualey
Jordanian author Haya Saleh’s Wild Poppies (شقائق النعمان), which won the 2020 Etisalat Award for Arabic Children’s Literature, YA category, is a compelling story of teen and pre-teen children struggling to grow up — and survive — during the Syrian civil war.
This gripping work of literary realism is set a decade ago in Syria, and it is told in two voices: bookish, careful, and introverted Omar and his stubborn, risk-taking younger brother, Sufyan. The two boys are displaced from the home and lives by war and living in a house crammed with relatives, where each small family is mainly concerned with their own survival.
Omar and Sufyan live crammed together in one room with their sick mother and younger sister Thoraya, while Sufyan’s adopted dog, Qatoush, hangs around outside the house. The children have recently lost their father, who was killed when they fled the bombing of their neighborhood. Now they must grow up quickly — an idea 12-year-old Sufyan relishes, in some ways, while 15-year-old Omar is anxious about what it means to support a family.
Early in the book, Omar stands in line for aid at a nearby refugee camp while Sufyan wants to do something. After several failed attempts to make money, Sufyan finds what seems like a way to help: going to a center for religious lessons, and bringing other kids along with him. The men in charge of the center offer him both food and money, and are pleased by new recruits. Eventually, the men trick Sufyan and his friends into going off with them, and they also come back and terrorize the people living in the camp. Rather than be caught up by these men, Omar takes his mother’s advice and ends up running off with charming 13-year-old Salma and a difficult boy named Rakan.
In alternating sections, we see Omar, Salma, and Rakan struggling to survive on their own, while Sufyan is struggling against the life of a child soldier.
Eventually, after many surprises and struggles — and meeting up with several other compelling characters — Sufyan escapes and he and his brother manage to reunite. Although this is a novel for teens, but adults will also find themselves compelled by the clear, moving story and the development of all the core characters, especially Omar, Sufyan, Rakan, and Salma. The book is beautifully written, with moments of joy and humor amidst the terrors. Because it is YA, it does not end as grimly as most novels for adults.
It opens with a quote from the brilliant Syrian playwright Saadallah Wannous: “We are condemned to hope. The things that are happening today cannot be the end of history.“
A small section from the opening:
I woke up to my sister Thoraya screaming. I slipped an arm around her, pulling her head up against my chest. The threads of early dawn light made it just bright enough for me to see the frightened look in her eyes.
I said, trying to comfort her, “We’re safe here, don’t be scared. Nothing’s going to happen to you. I promise!”
Our mother startled awake, too, and she called for Thoraya to come sleep on her lap. She kissed her and made her arm into a pillow for Thoraya’s head, and then she started to sing to her, the way she used to before the war:
Sleep, my little one, sleep
Lord, I pray her soul to keep
Oh, I’ll cover my baby up tight,
Oh please, God of Mercy and Might
My family all lived together in a small room. It was the one assigned to us by my mother’s aunt, Sajida, in her house in the country. There were three other rooms that were all filled with relatives who had fled the ruins of their cities and villages, who had come seeking safety, far from the places where fighting raged.
Our aunt’s house was in a village called “Al Nuaman,” which means The Poppy, and it’s called that because wild poppies grow here in the spring. Every spring, the hills and valleys around the village look like young women wearing holiday dresses. All of them are covered in bright flowers, and the wheat fields stretch out in every direction.
The biggest room in our aunt’s house was for her eldest son and his wife, and the second was for my cousin and his wife. In the third, another cousin lived with her husband, plus her husband’s parents. There were no big get-togethers between the residents of the house and their guests; everyone stuck to their own rooms and barely came out, and every family was busy taking care of their own basic needs. People might have managed to escape the war, but what they didn’t realize was that its fire would still be burning them.
The noise my mom and Thoraya were making woke up my little brother Sufyan. He got up off his mattress and walked over to Thoraya, who’s six, and said, “Open your hand. This will make you a brave girl.”
Thoraya opened her tiny palm, and Sufyan put a small black beetle in it. He jumped back when Thoraya shrieked in fear, and my mother’s voice rose as she cursed at him.
Sufyan is the only one who can still upset our mom and make her lose her temper. Ever since our dad was martyred and our house was destroyed, she’s been transformed into someone who seems so strong and stoic and calm. It’s rare that she shouts at us, like she used to before. Instead, she’s usually silent, maybe because her head is filled with the sounds of bullets and explosions.
Sufyan left the room, and things calmed down. My mom went back to singing to Thoraya, and a gentle breeze slipped through the window, into our room. I pulled my knees up against my chest and sat, thinking about our mom. Her soft voice washed over my soul and took me back in time. Even though only a few months had passed, it felt like it had been more than a hundred years.
Before the war, we had a house in the peaceful city of Raqqun. There, we’d come home from school safely, and, when my dad got back from the school where he worked as a physics teacher, my mom would have our lunch ready. I can still smell the mouthwatering dishes she cooked and baked. After lunch, I would go with Sufyan to play football in our neighborhood, or else I’d go out with my friends and walk through the souk, or maybe I’d go with my dad to the farm that he had inherited from my grandfather. There, I’d help him harvest the crops. I thought we would live our whole lives like that, in happy love and peace. But then one single siren announcing the outbreak of war was enough to end it all.
I remembered the night when the bombing started. Dad woke us all up, terrified. His head was bare, and he was wearing only a flannel shirt and pajama pants, and he shut all the windows tight and turned off the lights. When the bombing got heavier, and we could hear people screaming, we ran out toward the big State Hospital. By then, hundreds had families had run out of their houses in search of safety. There were women, old people, children—some of them had run from the rain of fire coming from the sky, and some had been shot at from the ground. Some had died and become martyrs.
Our dad tried to protect us from the bombing by sheltering us with his own body. He held us in his arms, and we felt safe like that, because those two strong arms had never once failed to protect us, and they had never let us down.
The shelling got harder, and the gunfire got closer. People were running in every direction. I looked up at the sky, and it was lit up with lava, and then I couldn’t see my dad anymore. I turned around, looking for him, and found him standing there, behind me. He was about to fall over, since he had been fatally hit by shrapnel. He waved his right hand at us, gesturing at us to turn away and keep going, while holding his left hand against the side of his body where blood was gushing out, until his hands and clothes were soaked in it. I tried to run toward him, to save him. I wanted to stay by his side. But a young man who was nearby grabbed me and dragged me away as I kicked and punched at the air.
I screamed as hard as I could: “Baba, Baba, Baba,” and then I lost consciousness. When I woke up, sadness hung over the world, and ghosts lived in the city.
Before the war started, I’d sometimes hear my dad talking about what he thought might happen if war broke out in our country. He would talk about it on the phone, or with his friends at the café in the evenings, and he would say that other countries would kill us from the skies while internal conflicts would kill us from the ground. At the time, his words didn’t mean anything to me. I was sure that this war he was talking about would take place somewhere else, and it couldn’t possibly reach us!
That day, the voices of crying children, weeping mothers, and old people sobbing were all mixed up together. For the first time, I smelled the scent of blood. I couldn’t stand it, and I kept on throwing up. The whole place was covered in rubble, and the rubble filled up my heart.