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There has been a revival of heritage folktales and fables in the Gulf Arab states amid a growing appetite for locally written children’s literature. Regional platforms supporting this budding industry include Abu Dhabi’s Etisalat Award for Arabic children’s literature launched in 2009, Qatar’s State Award for Children’s Literature established in 2015, and Sharjah’s Children’s Book Fair inaugurated in 2018. This proactive support of local children’s authors by Gulf states is relatively new and is linked to national development and education strategies. However, the tradition of intimate oral storytelling, known as hakawati, has a long history in the region and is considered an important component of the khaleeji culture. More and more, local writers are digging into the archives to revive this heritage and preserve the Arabic language, while offering children and young adults pleasurable and culturally relevant stories.
The region’s economic boom and rapid modernization in the 1970s played a major role in educational advancement. During this period, school curriculums were largely imported from abroad. As a result, Gulf nationals have typically been raised reading children’s literature from the West or other parts of the Arab world. Printed stories from the Arabian Peninsula were limited, and the tradition of oral storytelling slowly dissolved. The new generation of Gulf nationals face two main identity challenges: declining interest in reading in Arabic and the reliance on foreign literature, which is arguably detached from local cultures. To learn more about the state of children’s literature in the Gulf, AGSIW spoke to two authors and illustrators: Halla bint Khalid, from Saudi Arabia, and Alia Al Shamsi, from the United Arab Emirates.
Halla has published 18 children’s books since 1997 and is considered a pioneer in the field of children’s literature. In asking her about what encouraged her to become a children’s author, Halla told AGSIW, “I never thought I would be a children’s author or illustrator, but when my first two children were born, I was looking for specific stories to tell them. I could not find them on the market. So, I just decided to make my own. I just wanted to print a few copies for my children and future grandchildren. You can understand my dismay when I was told I had to print a minimum of 1,000 copies. When I told my father, he encouraged me to publish them, saying: ‘Halla, it can’t be that hard.’ Neither he nor I imagined the size of the challenge I was taking on. To put it simply, it is not a luxurious or glamorous profession by any means.”
Alia, who began writing children’s books more than a decade later, is a young Emirati Italian poet and author, as well as a mother. Like Halla, her child’s birth motivated her to get involved in the art of storytelling. When asked about her background, she said, “I played with the thought of being a writer and an artist at a very young age. The way I started my career was through photography and photojournalism, which is very similar to storytelling. I also come from a household that reads a lot. In the beginning, I was telling stories that were nonfiction through the medium of photography, so using visual language. But then when I had my son, Ahmad, I started reading a lot of children’s books, specifically in English, because the illustrations were just so beautiful that it almost becomes like an art object.”
These illustrations also had a strong impact on Halla, who said, “When I traveled to Europe with my parents as a child, my nanny used to leave me in a bookshop and disappear for two to three hours. When she came back, she always found me exactly where she left me, gazing at a book. I was born in 1971, and the Arabic books at the time were printed on very poor yellow, grainy paper and in comparison to their English and French counterparts, the illustrations were mostly unattractive and sometimes scary. I did read Arabic books, but it was a chore rather than a pleasure.
Halla and Alia share similar views about the importance of creating enjoyable and playful books, moving away from education-heavy texts. However, they had very different experiences when they first entered the field of children’s literature. According to Halla, “In Saudi Arabia, I think there were only one or two prominent authors at the time. They were men, but they were not doing what I was looking to do. I did not want to write a book to teach children how to read or to teach them a specific lesson. I just wanted to make books that children would enjoy.” Alia noted, “Children like to be challenged. We shouldn’t talk down to them and over explain or feel that every story needs to have a moral. And I think that’s the problem; we still stick to the idea that it has to have a message.” About her views on the industry, Alia added, “When I decided to start writing, I was so lucky that I had this group of friends: One was just starting her publishing house, and another always wanted to illustrate a children’s book. The majority of children’s book writers today are women, and you do have more and more children’s book authors. I think there is an appetite, and I think a lot of people want to know our stories, and they want to hear them from us.”
Both authors find inspiration in day-to-day life. “It is usually events that are happening around me,” Halla observed. “I do not think in advance. My very first book, ‘Me Maymoun,’ was triggered by the masses of young people racing to plastic surgeons. We did not officially have plastic surgery in Saudi Arabia until around the late ‘80s and ‘90s, and people started to talk about it openly. There was a clinic that had opened here, and I found it horrific. So, my first story was about a giraffe that did not like the way it looked. The second one was my story, and it is about a little camel that did not think it could win a race. After that, every single book was inspired by something going on inside the house.”
For Alia, her first story, which was initially published as an e-book, was centered around the themes of identity and belonging. “My first published book was ‘Alayah,’ and it is a story about Dubai. It is very close to me because I grew up on the shores of Jumeirah. It is almost autobiographical and is all about the sense of belonging. So, my idea was always to create a story that was local, but that also touched on something that is very much universal.”
On their audience, children and young adults, Halla and Alia emphasized that they were their harshest critics, but their feedback was the most rewarding. Halla enthusiastically mentioned: “Just a few days ago, I got a message on Instagram from a young lady, who said, ‘I am 23 years old, but I owe the cleanliness of my teeth to you.’ This to me is better than a thousand awards.” She also added, “I just saw that a little boy was reviewing my book ‘Once Upon A Time,’ which is part of a series about animals in the Arabian Peninsula, and he was saying how he was amazed that there was a savannah in the empty quarters. It was really cute! These are the moments when I think, ‘Yes, Halla, keep doing this.’”
For Alia, it is mostly her outreach to small towns in the UAE that she finds heartwarming and encouraging: “I fell in love with outreach and creating workshops. I specifically wanted to work with children who lived outside the cities because you see a whole different demographic. For example, when I visited Wadi Al Helo, which is a town in the UAE that has a small population of 500 people, it was phenomenal. They honestly blew me away because they were interested in abstract art. I also went to another area called Al Dhaid. Their work was more descriptive – they want to show their environment, and they really cared about illustrating the landscape. So outreach is very important to me. It is important for my creativity because they let me into their world, and it is very playful. You have children out there that have talent, and these are the kind of children that will build the cultural and art scene of the future.”
Both Halla and Alia explore different genres of children’s literature. Their personal lives inspire some of their stories, and others are more aimed at revisiting and readapting old heritage tales. Halla published the book “Doha Ya Doha,” which was inspired by a traditional lullaby. “My father always used to sing that song to me when I was little. But I never really thought of turning it into a book until my second child came home singing a nursery rhyme with the verse ‘And here comes the chopper, that will chop off your head!’ Then someone told me that ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’ was about the plague. I immediately thought I had to give her a nursery rhyme that had nothing to do with chopping off people’s heads and deadly diseases. So that’s how ‘Doha Ya Doha’ came to be.” Alia also readapted a traditional local tale about an island called “Waq Waq” and explained, “I was part of a project to write a book in partnership with the UAE Board of Books for Young People, and we were 10 Emirati writers. We came together, and we wanted to pile up all the different stories from UAE folklore. We started reading books and the different versions of them, realizing that coastal stories were different from the inland bedouin stories. Having said that, I picked the story of ‘Jazeerat Al Waq Waq,’ which my father used to read to me. I started asking questions of provenance, and through research I realized that some elements of the story might have been picked up from Africa, or through the Arabs who were in Zanzibar.”
Promoting Arabic and Gulf literature, specifically connected to local culture, is increasingly a topic of discussion, and Gulf governments are expanding initiatives to address this. There remains a need to support children’s writers, especially financially, to promote and professionalize a still young industry. There was a long period of stagnation in terms of the production of Arabic literature, especially for children. But today, with a new generation of authors learning from more experienced writers, children’s literature has a promising future.
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