It’s a chilly day; a dozen children are huddled together at the Najda-Now Center in Shatila Palestinian refugee camp, attentively listening to Rania Zaghir bringing to life Man Lahasa Karna El Booza? (Who ate my ice cream?). Zaghir is a children’s author and the founder of the Beirut-based Al Khayyat Al Saghir (The Little Tailor) Publishing House.
The story she is telling today is about a girl and a group of colorful characters, such as dragons and mermaids, who advise the girl how to eat an ice cream that turns out to be elusive. In a manner that captivates even a non-Arabic speaking adult listener, Zaghir brings the book to life and shows her young audience that it is perfectly all right to eat ice cream the way they like to and to do things how they feel like doing them. The book is fun and its message is subtle, going straight to the hearts of the listeners.
“I’d like the answer to be yes but it’s no,” Zaghir readily answers the obvious question: ‘did you read a lot as a child?’ “I like to tell children a story about how I became an author: cleaning a shelf in my dad’s office the Webster’s dictionary fell on my head.”
“There were no books at school when I was young, the civil war contributed a lot to that. There were other priorities, not books,” she recalls. At home, Zaghir has a major children’s books collection, including books from around the world. Among her favorite authors are Shel Silverstein and Mo Williams. Not surprisingly, her five month-old son already loves books. “I read to him as I do to other children – he responds more and more.”
Writing a book was a requirement to complete her degree at AUB and so she decided to self-publish hers. It did well and was the starting point of a groundbreaking career as a children’s author, characterized by indigenous, fun and imaginative storybooks, each with colourful and engaging characters, paired with gorgeous, detailed illustrations.
Her titles have accomplished something rarely achieved by illustrated Arab children’s books, with some of them being translated and published in Germany, Italy and Korea. The UK-based CBBC (Children’s BBC), also used her Who ate my ice cream? story for an episode of Dan and the Story Train.
Zaghir was granted the Anna Lindh Euro-Mediterranean Foundation for the Dialogue Between Cultures Award in 2010. At home, the author who is said to be “providing the right keys to decipher complicated codes of modern life,” has also received awards. Sisi Malakit Talbas Kharofan wa Dodatayn, published by Al Khayyat Al Saghir, which Zaghir established in 2007 – received the Assabil (Friends of Public Libraries) 2009 Annual Award for Children’s Literature.
Al Khayyat Al Saghir also sells lots of rights, licenses, and on average publishes one to two books a year. “I can live off being a children’s book author,” Zaghir states. “I love what I do most of the time, some of the time though when I compare the energy and effort I put in to the outcome, there is a huge discrepancy.”
Zaghir receives money from a variety of sources for her wider work. To buy toys, puzzles, blocks and stationery for the Najda-Now children’s center in Shatila, she was recently given $1000. A private contact in Kuwait sent her $600 to organize the party for asylum-seeking children at Waraq. Zaghir has signed a contract with Palestine’s My Library initiative driven by the Palestine Ministry of Education that gives out bags containing between five to nine books to 60 000 pre-school children, including one of her titles. “I speak to big banks here that happily give $1 million to all sorts of events but laugh at me, when I approach them with literacy projects. They’ve got the wrong focus!” “My dream project would be a Book Trust like in Great Britain or Palestine’s Maktbati el Beitiya (my home library).
What matters, however, is ensuring the books get read. “What’s the point of putting books into warehouses? I go out to meet my readers or turn them into readers,” Zaghir explains. But not all of Zaghir’s readers respond in the same way to her storytelling, and poverty and harsh circumstances seem to have an impact, not only on the reception children give her readings, but also on their ability to cope emotionally with the stories. After countless readings in schools across the country, Zaghir has noticed how children attending public schools in impoverished areas generally have a more limited vocabulary and are usually slower to respond to her work. The children in Shatila that Zaghir performed to, many of them Syrian Palestinians, and likely to have been traumatized by the war they encountered in their homeland, enjoyed the readings and activities. But, according to Zaghir they didn’t laugh as much, and weren’t perhaps as expressive as other kids in other parts of the country.
At an event she organized for children of asylum-seekers from Syria, at the space of the Waraq Art Collective in Ras el Nabaa, Zaghir had arranged for Ya Ward Meen Yishtereek?, a puppetry play by Hussein Nakhal to be staged. “The children started crying, we had to comfort them,” she recalls. “The play was about death – how to deal with death. Children are confronted with it daily, whether it’s a plant or an insect dying, or they hear about it vicariously – on average four times a day! These children particularly need help in making sense of what they’ve experienced.”
According to Beirut-based Dr. Myrna Gannagé, author, psychologist and director of the 'Centre médico-psychologique d'accueil de l'enfant de la guerre et de sa famille', children need adults, ideally their parents, to help them manage and overcome trauma. “Books provide children with the opportunity to dream and escape reality, even just for a few minutes. Books give them the chance to think creatively. It can also inspire them to become future authors and illustrators.” Reading empowers children; Zaghir insists that a society which reads is different from a non-reading society.
The author is aware of this, and whilst she regularly attends the prestigious Bologna and Frankfurt Book Fairs, she is constantly pursuing alternative methods to sell her books, such as renting a table at Souk el Tayeb or sponsoring a party for under-privileged kids, reading to asylum-seeking children and visiting schools.
Zaghir believes that the internet is full of opportunities; the digital world makes books more visible. “Children do spend time on the net, why not meet them on that platform? A high reading culture and internet use is a positive in my situation.” She has been making use of embedded features in her work, notably in her latest Haltabees book. “The cyber world is instrumental, it’s something that needs to be addressed, so let’s teach kids how to use this electronic platform.”
She wants children to be able to immerse themselves in foreign cultures via all kinds of media such as books, phone applications, TV programs and movies without being shocked, overwhelmed, and otherwise negatively affected. Hence, she sees her role as being to help children to to structure their own preferred means of accessing culture. Her aim always is to speak to the children with a smart, thoughtful language that links them to the present. She therefore doesn’t believe in squeezing in a message, the stories should flow. “I believe children’s literature is an art form and art goes in all directions… children should be entertained.”
Among Zaghir’s titles are two recent, splendid collaborations with local illustrator and artist David Habchy: Haltabees Haltabees: A Ballad of Sesame Seeds and Cucumbers followed by Haltabees Haltabees, books eloquently playing with fusha and colloquial Arabic, about one-sided love; the latter the first children’s book in the Arab world to be on iPad.
Here is an extract from Haltabees -
A square love, a rectangular love:
A big love
A small love
A short love
A long love
A square love
A rectangular love
The clever people’s love
The silly people’s love
But my love for you Lamis
Has neither a shape nor measures
A smooth and cute love
A love made of sesame, honey and garlic
A love has an image that I put in an Album
A love that is more beautiful than the songs of Abd El Halim and Um Kulthum
My love is a bubble that will remain and remain and remain.
Album rhymes with thoom – garlic. The following lines of the poem all rhyme with thoom as well. Translation and explanations by Ghiath al-Jebawi.
For more information you can visit the website of Al Khayyat Al Saghir (The Little Tailor) Publishing House.