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.