“I wanted to read books to my daughter in the colloquial Arabic that she hears and speaks every day, not in formal Arabic. I couldn’t find them, so I decided to write them myself.”
Galilee-born Palestinian journalist Reem Makhoul, along with her husband, Irish-British journalist Stephen Farrell, are behind a new project aimed at making the Arabic language accessible to bilingual children. The couple spent many years working in the Middle East: Reem in Jerusalem and Stephen on and off in Baghdad as a correspondent for The Times and The New York Times. These days, they spend their time in New York, where they’re raising a bilingual child and recently started a small publishing house together, Ossass Stories, to help other parents pass on the Arabic language to their kids. As a whole, literature in colloquial Arabic is growing, but children’s books remain almost exclusively written in fusha, the standardised version of Arabic. For Reem and Stephen, parents as well as journalists and storytellers, there was a gap to be filled. Mashallah News talked to Reem about their first and newly released book, a nicely designed story called “The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination”, and other, upcoming, books.
How did your project start?
The seeds of the idea were planted many years ago, but it really started when, as a mother living in New York and raising a five-year-old bilingual daughter, I wanted to read books to her in colloquial Arabic, not in formal Arabic. I couldn’t find them, so I decided to write them myself.
When you were a kid, what kind of stories did you grow up with?
When I was a child growing up in the Galilee, all stories were either Arabic literature or translations from English, and all were in fus’ha. I couldn’t relate to them because I thought the formality of the language was a barrier. It sounded strange to have fus’ha coming out of the mouths of children and other characters in books. Even more so later, when I started watching cartoons and other children’s programs on television.
“It was a new experiment, written in a blend of colloquial Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian, so we thought a new setting would be appropriate.”
Tell us about the story “The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination”, what was your inspiration?
It is about a young Arab girl named Sheherazade, who is growing up in New York City and has an overactive imagination. The name comes from a statue of Sheherazade, the narrator of “Tales of 1001 Nights”, which used to be on the banks of the Tigris River in Baghdad, right outside the windows of my husband’s newspaper office.
We decided to use the ambiguity of the word khayal, which can mean both imagination and shadow, to create a real person outside Sheherazade, inspiring and interacting with her, and see what would happen if they were separated. We deliberately set the story in New York, not in the traditional setting of a village in the Middle East, or even a major capital such as Baghdad, Beirut or Damascus. It was a new experiment, written in a blend of colloquial Palestinian, Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian, so we thought a new setting would be appropriate.
You’re bringing up a multilingual kid yourself: tell us about that.
My daughter is the reason why it all started. We are living abroad and her father is not Arab, but I am determined that she will speak Arabic. I have many friends and relatives in a similar situation, bringing up children in America, Europe and the Middle East. They cover the full range – from children speaking fluent Arabic or having a reasonably good command of the language, to knowing only broken Arabic or none at all. Some common factors among those who have passed the language on is that they often make sure that Arabic is spoken at home; they make their children talk back to them in Arabic and make it available to them through things like books, music, classes and television programmes. Many of them also say that they encourage their children to speak Arabic in telephone conversations with their relatives in the Middle East. It’s not easy, but I am helped by the fact that I just cannot speak any other language to my daughter – it only feels natural speaking to her in Arabic.
“One of my friends told me, out of earshot of her girl, that she had learned two colours herself while reading the book to her daughter. That made me so proud, and happy.”
You’re adding to an important but small body of literature, children’s books in colloquial Arabic. What do you feel about that?
The whole idea is to bring something new to Arabic children’s literature. We are not trying to replace books in fus’ha, but offering something fresh. I have had many, many discussions with friends, both at home in Palestine and in the diaspora, and there are many different opinions. Some in Palestine say they see less of a need for it since they speak ‘amiyyeh [colloquial] to their children at home. They want them to be exposed to fus’ha in books, and that’s fine. But I have many friends in their 20s and 30s in the diaspora whose own spoken Arabic is far from perfect, and command of fus’ha even less so. We showed them early drafts of the book and they were delighted to read it to their children, because they saw it as an accessible gateway to Arabic. They think that if their children become more comfortable in spoken Arabic, they are more likely to progress to literary Arabic. Some of these parents even tell us that they learn from the books themselves. Our first book is focused on colours, especially those of the rainbow. One of my friends told me, out of earshot of her girl, that she had learned two colours herself while reading the book to her daughter. That made me so proud, and happy.
Did you receive some interest from families and readers living in Arab countries?
Yes, we have already had orders from, and delivered the book to, people in Beirut and Jerusalem. I know there will be an interest in Nazareth, and we are speaking to bookshops in Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. This is a very early stage – the book was only published two months ago and we are a husband and wife writing team, with an excellent illustrator based in Lebanon, Fouad Mezher.
“The main focus is to move into web-based and digital platforms, offering educational and storytelling apps, videos, audio books, dictionaries and games.”
What will the second story be about?
It is already written, and will be called “Where Shall I Hide?” Like the first book, it will be set in New York and this time about shapes – squares, circles, triangles and so on. But it will still be within the context of a proper narrative story.
Do you plan to have some stories set in the Middle East?
Yes, even before starting we felt that New York would be the right setting for the first two books, but we would need to move on after that. Once we have established who the character is, it will be much more fun and educational to have her visit different locations, including, of course, going home to see her family and cousins.
How do you plan to develop your activities?
Once we have laid down the initial Sheherazade series as a foundation, we plan to publish them in different dialects. We already have an e-book out on Kindle and an English translation on our Ossass-Stories website, and some people have asked for dual-language English and Arabic versions. We will see if there is enough demand for that. However, since we are both writers and videographers, the main focus is to move into web-based and digital platforms, offering educational and storytelling apps, videos, audio books, dictionaries and games. All of this is done to encourage ‘amiyyeh as a gateway to Arabic, so that children can encounter, explore and become fascinated by the rich history of our language and culture.