At this year’s Cairo International Book Fair, the most sought-after books were those about Arab revolutions. Titles about revolution, in Arabic and in English, have also dominated prime bookstore shelf space. And yet few revolutionary titles have appeared for children.
The General Egyptian Book Organization recently published and lauded the celebratory children’s book “25 Songs of the 25 January Revolution.” In December of 2011, a French publishing house released the bilingual French/Arabic “The Revolutionary’s Pen,” which aims to explain the impetus behind the Tunisian revolution to children.
But while revolutionary novels, comics and diaries for adults have been published in a veritable torrent, new revolution-themed children’'s books have come at a trickle. In Cairo’s big bookstores, children’s-book sections look much as they did before January 2011.
Award-winning Lebanese children’s book author Fatima Sharafeddine has a new book in the works, called “Habbat Rayahon Qawayaton” (A Strong Wind Blew), which is dedicated “to Egypt, to the children of Egypt, to the children of all Arab revolutions.” In Sharafeddine’s book, which will be published by Dar al-Shorouk within the next six months, a strong wind blows and changes “all the world.”
But Sharafeddine’s story, told in rhymed verse, is one of very few. She said that, “in the Arab world, we do not realize that political events mean anything to the children; we do not notice that they are affected by it; they are generally excluded from the political scene and shielded from its terrible consequences.”
As a child, Sharafeddine was herself shielded in many ways from the Lebanese Civil War. But she still found the need to talk about the conflict and has written one of the few Arabic children’s books about war, a sensitive, hopeful story called “Fi Madinatee Harb” (In My City, There’s a War).
Certainly, there are some things from which children, particularly younger ones, should be shielded. Psychologist Dalia Danish, who lectured in Cairo last spring about post-traumatic stress disorder, suggested that children should not watch the news. However, Danish said that parents should answer children’s questions about current events: Children’s books are one positive way to open that conversation.
Nadine Kaadan, an acclaimed Syrian children’s book author, says that “most Syrian authors, and adults for that matter, are being very careful and avoidant in talking with kids about the crisis, because they don’t want to disturb them with stories of brutality and violence.”
But Kaadan feels that these issues, in the end, must be discussed. She has been looking for a way to write about events in Syria for children.
“It’s been on my mind since the uprising started, but I wasn’t clear on how to address it in a children’s book. The project slowly took shape as the events escalated from stage to stage, and I’ve finally decided that the story must center around how kids’ daily lives change during the crisis and how they are affected by all the uncertainty that is going on around them.”
Some Arabic children’s books, like Fatima al-Madol’s “El Wutn” (The Homeland), talk generally about a child’s relationship to his or her country. But few address the more confusing or difficult aspects of current events.
“I think it’s due to our educational culture in general in the Arab world, and our methods in dealing with children,” Kaadan said. “I would describe it more as ‘a need-to-know basis’ type of transmitting knowledge from parent to child, rather than an open and two-way conversation about situations that surround us or questions that the children may have, even if they’re very difficult to answer and are about the Arab Spring.”
Self-censorship also might be part of it, Kaadan said.
“I also feel that Arabic children’s publishers are overly cautious in dealing with issues that are considered taboo,” she said.
As she considers how to make her contribution to the literature of uprising, Kaadan says, she’s been particularly inspired by Iranian author Marjane Satrapi’s coming-of-age comic “Persepolis” (2000) and Egyptian author Walid Taher’s “The Black Dot” (2010), in which a group of children triumphs over a mysterious, oppressive dot.
Kaadan said it will be a challenge to create a book that, like “Persepolis” and “The Black Dot,” is both timeless and timely.
“It’s a challenge to strike a balance between creating a book that is universal, but also one that represents a historic and critical chapter in the Arab world for young readers,” Kaadan said.