Bedtime stories for the Arab diaspora

Their first book, “The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination,” uses simple colloquial words to help children learn.
Updated 03 January 2018
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Bedtime stories for the Arab diaspora

For 37-year-old Reem Makhoul — a New York-based Palestinian mother of two young girls — it is important that she raise bilingual children who know of, and are comfortable with, both the Arab and the Western world. However, that can be a challenge — especially when it comes to bedtime.
Three years ago, Makhoul was struggling to keep her then-four-year-old daughter Sheherazade interested in the Arabic children’s books she would read to her at night. She could only find books in the standard Arabic dialect — fussha — used in formal situations including broadcasting, literature or classical texts. At home, Sheherazade heard and spoke the colloquial Arabic dialect, amiya. In recent times, amiya has been popularized through mass media, including talk shows and social media.
Makhoul had to break down the lengthy, syntactical fussha sentences and translate them into amiya. Of course, this meant the story did not flow well and eventually Sheherazade would lose interest in the plot.
“My daughter didn’t relate to the formal language and I found it exhausting to simultaneously read and translate from fussha to amiya,” Makhoul said.
It was a problem she was already aware of before becoming a mother. As a young girl, Makhoul had read Arabic books and watched Arabic cartoons and wondered why the language always seemed too formal for the context and characters.
Her husband, Stephen Farrell, relates to the struggle. “As a non-native learner of Arabic, I could understand how my daughter struggled with the formal dialect,” he said. “She didn’t recognize it. It was like a young child not being ready for Shakespearean English.”
And although the books related to Arabic culture — olive trees and souqs, for example — they did not speak to a girl growing up in New York. The couple wished they could read Sheherazade stories that were about life in New York, London or Paris. After a long and fruitless search, they identified a gap in the market and decided to write their own children’s book in the colloquial Levantine dialect called shami.
“The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination” was published in late 2015 by Ossass Stories, the publishing house set up by Farrell and Makhoul to release their books. The titular girl is named Sheherazade and the book uses colors, shapes, symbolism and simple colloquial words to help children learn.
The sequel, “Where Shall I Hide,” came out recently and is inspired by Sheherazade and the birth of their second daughter, Nairouz. Both the books are set in New York City, but Makhoul and Farrell said they plan to feature other parts of the world — including the Middle East when the girls visit their Palestinian grandparents.
The books have proved to be extremely popular with parents in the Arab diaspora as a way to enable their kids to connect with their rich heritage. American customer Katie Dennis said: “The books are great. My husband is Palestinian, I am a non-native speaker of Arabic, and we are raising our son bilingual. It’s so refreshing to see a story in colloquial Arabic and for him to be exposed to stories about kids like him.
“I also appreciate how the story has an adventurous girl as the main character and is not reliant on traditional gender stereotypes,” she continued.
Hossam Abouzahr, a Lebanese father raising a toddler in the US, said that the books are an essential Arabic teaching tool. “The words in the books are the same ones we use at home and that makes a huge difference; it gives him the confidence to respond and repeat the story,” he said. “His mind, I imagine, is like a map that connects the plot of the story with what he has learned from other places.”
However, not all agree that there is a place for this new genre. Purists believe that literature and stories should be in the formal Arabic dialect and weeding it out will eventually lead to extinction of fussha and an important part of Arab identity.
Abouzahr, however, who is currently compiling a colloquial Arabic dictionary, believes that colloquial children’s books might actually help to save the Arabic language.
“Amiya and fussha alike give children an early love for reading and help them grasp the basics of the language,” he told Arab News. “This need is even more prevalent in our times, given (the number of) migrants and refugees pouring out of Arab countries.”
Makhoul and Farrell both stressed that they are not against using fussha. “It’s very important in literary works,” said Makhoul, “but that doesn’t mean there is no space for other types of dialects.
“Our books offer a gateway — not an obstacle — to learning and adopting the Arabic language,” she concluded.


Egyptian novel explores Christians under controlling church

Updated 13 December 2018
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Egyptian novel explores Christians under controlling church

  • The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church
  • It explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church

CAIRO: Shady Lewis Botros says his recently published novel — “Ways of the Lord” — can be broadly viewed as an attempt to answer one question: What it’s like to be a Christian in Egypt?
The answer, given in stories narrated by the book’s chief character, is complex and often disheartening. It’s giving your children neutral names that don’t identify them as Christians in hopes they’ll have a sporting chance of progress in the mainly Muslim nation. It means facing baseless but dangerous charges of spying for Israel at time of war. It means turning off the lights at home and gathering the family in one room to escape the attention of a Muslim mob on the street.
Beyond entrenched discrimination, the Arabic-language novel explores what the author says is the victimization of Egypt’s Christians by a “politically engineered harmony” between the state and their own church, seeking to control their lives.
“Ways of the Lord” is a rare example of an Egyptian work of fiction whose primary characters are Christian. The result breaks stereotypes that many of the country’s Muslims hold about their minority compatriots. But it also turns the look inward, dispelling the secrecy surrounding the ancient Coptic Orthodox Church — the predominant denomination in Egypt — and addressing its controlling practices and its rivalries with smaller churches.
“Most Coptic literature is about the discrimination or oppression Christians endure with a dose of rights advocacy. That’s understandable but that is also about as far as it goes,” Botros told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from London, his home of 13 years. “This work introduces Egyptians to the reality of Copts as a people who are not always praying, singing hymns and waiting on every word from the church. The novel opens the world of Copts to both Copts and Muslims.”
The novel, the author’s first, takes on added relevance because the Coptic Church leadership has adhered closer than ever to the government. It’s an alliance that gives the community a measure of protection but has raised questions over its independence and has drawn the wrath of Islamic militants, who have over the past two years killed more than a 100 Christians in attacks.
The church’s unity is also being tested, partially over calls for it to modernize some of its rigid rules, like those governing marriage and divorce. The killing in July of the abbot of a monastery, for which two monks are on trial, has led to soul searching about the practices of monasticism, traditionally a cornerstone of the church’s identity.
The novel tells the story of a young Christian man in Cairo, Sherif, who has abandoned the church. He’s in a relationship with a German woman, but to marry her he must first get a church document. So he goes to his neighborhood priest each week for interviews that turn into confessionals.
Sherif relates a series of tales to explain to the priest why he never comes to church. He tells of his family’s past rebellions, like a grandfather who left the Coptic Church because the priest would not baptize his newborn child before her death.
As a young man, he says, he hopped from one Christian denomination to another to explore his identity. His father is cynical about his spiritual search, telling his son, “Generally, they are all con artists.”
The confession sessions with the priest are one of two plot tracks running through the novel. The other follows Sherif’s political activism, which lands him in trouble with the police. His one hope to escape jail time is to marry his girlfriend and go to Germany, but in the end, the girlfriend returns home. He spends a year in jail for a white-collar crime he did not commit.
“Sherif was painted as a character in crisis and that’s not just on account of being a member of a minority, but rather as someone facing an existential crisis over his problems with the church and the state,” said literary critic Ahmed Shawqy Ali.
The novel ends with Sherif surrendering to the powers that crush his rebellion. Jobless after losing his government engineering job, he survives on a small income from doing little jobs for the church, while telling his stories to whoever will listen. “The ways of the Lord are strange and tough to understand,” Sheriff says of his return to the church’s embrace.
Botros said the book’s “fatalistic” ending “shows that, in a place like Egypt, religious minorities like Christians don’t have many choices.”
The church presents itself as the protector of Egypt’s Copts, and many in the community adhere to it fervently.
“The church is a peacemaker that is in harmony with everyone, from the ruling government and civil society groups to Al-Azhar,” said a church spokesman, Boulis Halim, referring to the top Muslim institution in Egypt. “We cannot deny that there are shortcomings in some respects, especially the social field, but that will evolve going forward.”
But critics say the interests of individual Christians get lost under the church’s communal leadership.
Kamal Zakher, a Christian who is one of Egypt’s top experts on the Coptic Church, said the church has become a “hostage” to the government for safety, particularly since the rise of Islamic hard-liners starting in the 1970s.
It and the government leadership deal with each other directly, but “they have all forgotten that ordinary Christians deal on daily basis with bureaucrats who, like everyone else, have been influenced by that Islamic revival,” Zakher said.
Karoline Kamel, a researcher on church affairs from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, said the novel’s main character is not typical of Coptic youth, who in large part associate closely with the church. But she said the novel gets the theme of control right.
“The church’s protection is focused on itself as an institution, as walls and buildings regardless of what happens to Christians,” she said.