My elder son is prone to a bit of hyperbole—the quote is his—but he really does love books and bookstores. If some children would be excited to meet Abou Treika and get the man’s signature on a beloved football, my son would be just as excited to meet Kenneth Grahame (unfortunately deceased) or Daniel Pinkwater, Walid Taher or Fatima Sharafaddine.
So last night, we piled in the car, drove across the city (stopping only once!), ate our snacks, chatted, read to each other, and finally made it to مكتبة البلسم. Early!
This was our first visit to مكتبة البلسم, and the space seemed a bit small for a reading, although I could see how more children could be accommodated with pillows and perhaps moving back a display. (Perhaps there’s also more room upstairs; we didn’t go.) But the small space aside, this was most assuredly the best Arabic children’s-book reading to which we’d been, and I was a little irritated with myself for not checking with Balsam or Sharafeddine in advance to see if she could visit my son’s school and other schools in Cairo.
After all, I don’t know how your children are taught Arabic in school, but our Arabic classes can be a little…dry. In French, they sing songs. In English, they read stories. And in Arabic, they copy from a government-issued textbook.
I believe it’s very important to have many grown-ups in the community help to make the Arabic language fun, relevant, and engaging. And last night, Sharafeddine did just that.
At past readings we’ve attended, the storytellers have been interesting, but they generally haven’t read from the book—they’ve just told a story in عامية based on the book’s text. (One exception was a quickie reading under an umbrella at the crowded Korba festival.) Generally, they’ve been a fun experience, and valuable, but storytelling doesn’t much help a child learn to love books in fos’ha. (Or, perhaps, foster independent reading.)
The first book Sharafeddine read was شعر ميمي, a sweet story about Mimi, who wants to exchange her curly hair for princess-like straight hair. When, in a dream, she gets her princess hair, she finds that her friends—and even her beloved grandfather—don’t recognize her. It makes lovely use of repetition and anticipation (we know the grandfather won’t recognize her), and the children get to see themselves that her hair returns to curliness in the rain, solving the problem.
When she awakes, she has changed her mind about شعرها الملوّى. I wanted to get this book for a friend with a curly-haired daughter (jealous of her sister’s “better” hair), but unfortunately forgot in the crunch. Really vivid, somewhat manga-inspired illustrations by Rasha al-Hakim. If you don’t believe me, check in with the GoodReads crowd. Published by Kalimat and available at Balsam books, Amazon.com, and Neelwafurat.
The second book was one we certainly took home for the two-year-old: أرنب سعيد. Up close, we love the book even more. It has crazy postmodern (and very detailed) illustrations by هبة فرّان and a text where you can really chant along. (Sharafeddine tried to get the kids to do it, but they were a little shy. I think chanting along with this book would work great as they became more comfortable, or in a school group where the kids already know each other.)
From the second page (where the rabbit really does manage to look like an elephant):
The book is published by دار النهضة العربية and available on Neelwafurat and in, of course, Al-Balsam.
Sharafeddine read several other stories. My seven-year-old was most taken by تامر و علبة الشوكولاتة الحمراء; this was the one he wanted signed at the end. This book—like the others—features repetition, anticipation, and, in the end, Tamer (of course) gets his chocolates. Yum.
She also started to get the children involved in a book called لو ماذا, but I think the television camera and hovering parents deterred them a bit. But I can see how it would be a fun book to do your own version (text and illustrations). Perhaps over Christmas break, we’ll do just that.
At the end, Sharafeddine answered questions about her craft, both from the adults and the children. I didn’t have my tape recorder (oops!), but I was interested in how she said that part of her writing process is to keep the story idea in her head for six months, a year, two years, before it comes out on paper.
I hope that, the next time Sharafeddine visits Cairo, she can make a number of bookstore and school visits, and I will certainly try to see if my son’s school can be on that list!
Note: We also picked up three more of Sharafeddine’s books: مرجان، لا أخاف ، و في مدينتي حرب. I had wanted her award-winning ديك الجبل , but it’s not yet available. Hopefully, I’ll write about each of those books soon. I do have a backlog of new books waiting (not to mention the paying work, the books for adults.)
One more note: I found the children’s books at Balsam generally not as expensive as at other bookshops in Cairo.