For some teens, classical Arabic literature has a stiff and forbidding reputation.
The teen protagonist in Huda El Shuwa’s young-adult novel Dragon of Bethlehem dreads Arabic class, and particularly pre-modern Arabic poetry. But then he meets a witty dragon who gives him a new way of looking at these fifteen-hundred-year-old poems. Freed from their traditional classroom context, the poems become something new.
With the new Young Readers series from the New York University Press’s Library of Arabic Literature (LAL), the scholars Enass Khansa and Bilal Orfali are crafting something like this secret dragon. The series, which is releasing its third classic book this month, reframes pre-modern texts so that they can take wing in the classroom and beyond.
“Classical Arabic literature is associated with many things,” Khansa said over a Zoom interview. “But it’s not associated with being a space for creative and experimental thinking. I think the main idea, for both of us, is that this [book series] is experimental. That’s why we’re medievalists—because there is richness and potential.”
“It’s not a heritage that we’re tied to,” Khansa added. “It’s ours, and we bring it back to life, or we read it anew. And it’s the same for kids.”
Don’t Eat Elephant Meat
The LAL Young Readers series launched in November 2019 with its first book, Ḥiyakat al-Kalam (Weaving Words). The collection is made up of selections from the charming tenth-century tales in al-Tanukhi’s Al-Faraj Ba’d al-Shiddah (Deliverance Follows Adversity).
The collection opens with one of al-Tanukhi’s fast-paced hardship stories, about a group of shipwrecked Sufis. Not finding any food, the Sufis each make a pledge to God. One promises to fast, another says he’ll pray more, a third vows to give up worldly pleasures. The last of them, oddly, pledges not to eat elephant meat. But, as it turns out, this is exactly what saves him when an angry elephant arrives on the scene.