Who: For readers aged 4-8; those who are old enough to be curious about war (but not yet “too old” for picture books).
What: في مدينتي حرب
Where: Al-Balsam Bookstore, quality bookstores across Beirut, Neelwafurat.
Why you should buy it: Children hear a great deal about war, whether or not they (or their family members) have had any experience with one. This is war from a child’s-eye view, and has wide-eyed illustrations and straightforward but poetic text that deals with war’s reality without giving children nightmares.
We’re terribly behind with reviews: All the lovely books on the Etisalat prize longlist; the BQFP books we picked up this summer; the Leila titles that Samar Taher so kindly sent over. (Not to mention the grown-up books.)
But today I wanted to talk about a book that caused some controversy in our home: في مدينتي حرب, by فاطمة شرف الدين. (Buy it from Neelwafurat here.) It was published by دار النهضة العربية in 2006, when, unfortunately, there was indeed war in the author’s city.
This is not the first book about a war in Lebanon that my older son has read. He is well familiar with From Far Away, co-written by the excellent Robert N. Munsch and Saoussan Askar, illustrated by Michael Martchenko. In From Far Away, the scenes of war are frightening, but Saoussan leaves almost immediately for Canada, and it really becomes an immigrant story.
When my husband saw the cover of في مدينتي حرب, he was nervous about exposing a seven-year-old to stories about war. (Why do children need to know about these things? he asked. Shouldn’t we try as far as we can to preserve their innocence?) My seven-year-old, on the other hand, was adamantly fascinated. He hears about war often, I’m sure, and wanted very much to know what this thing called “war” is like from a child’s point of view.
This is not an immigrant’s story, like Saoussan’s—our hero never leaves his beloved city—and, in fact, the book is much more touching for that. My son didn’t cry, but I nearly did. (This is usually how it happens.)
The story begins with a funny-looking, ballcapped narrator telling us:
أحب مدينتي كثيرا.
فيها أبي و أمي و أخي الصغير و أجدادي.
فيها مدرستي و رفاقي.
Up to this point, this could be my son’s own story, except that I don’t think my husband would ever wear that white leisure suit in the picture.
و لكن في مدينتي حرب.
In the next picture (which my seven-year-old examined carefully, to understand this thing called “war”), there is no graphic violence. But my seven-year-old did fixate on a teddy bear left behind in the street, and insisted that he would’ve found a way to rescue the bear.
The story goes on to talk about the times the family must hide in their basement, and times when the war abates—when they can go back to stores and school, and the narrator can play with his friends in the street. Other times, there are power cuts, and sometimes he has to stay over at his friend’s house because it’s not safe to walk in the streets.
There is a terrifying picture of looting soldiers, but it is more terrifying to me than it was to my son, who wanted to know “Why did they want the candlestick? Why are they doing this?”
In a terrifying moment (that is not actually depicted), the soldiers come into the boy’s home and force the family to stay absolutely still in a room. In a great leap of compassion, the narrator wonders:
هل هذا الجندي عنده أولاد صغير مثلي ؟
هل إبنه يخاف مثلي ؟
The next image shows the boy growing larger than the soldiers and shouting at them:
أرحل! هذا مدينتنا و نحن نوبه كثيرا !
In the end, the boy imagines becoming a teacher, and teaching children who will not be afraid of the “foreign soldiers.”
Throughout the book, the boy repeats “In my city, there is war. I love my city a lot.” By the end, this incantation— في مدينتي حرب. أحب مدينتي كثيرا—makes the boy seem, to me, larger than life.
This is not a book that glorifies war (quite the opposite!) and neither will it give children nightmares or take away from their innocence. Even if a child doesn’t have personal experience with war, children are exposed to news about conflict regularly, usually in a way that doesn’t take victims’ ordinary lives into account.
This little boy’s story—accompanied by child-like, wide-eyed drawings by توماس بروم—tackles the human side of war. And the little boy’s small resistances do indeed make him a real hero.