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Series Brings Alive Classical Arabic Texts for Young Readers

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.

This story—like other texts in the series—is not abridged or adapted in any way. There are no footnotes on less-familiar words.

“When I read in English, I don’t understand every word, but I still can guess the meaning,” Orfali said over Zoom. “I wanted the children to also learn new vocabulary this way, without having to footnote everything for them.”

“It’s ours, and we bring it back to life, or we read it anew. And it’s the same for kids.”

Enass Khansa
 A co-editor of the LAL Young Readers series

But the stories do have some additional context: They are visually translated by acclaimed Lebanese artist Jana Traboulsi, whose charming black-and-white images illuminate the book.

“Jana doesn’t read classical Arabic, which was very exciting for us,” Khansa said. “Because we want to interest young people who feel they cannot read these texts.”

To assist in the artistic process, Khansa and Orfali split up the stories and crafted a mini-lecture about each tale. “We recorded for her why we selected each story and what we think is the element that stands out: Is it visual? Is it auditory? Is it a connection with the characters?” Khansa said. “We gave her our impressions, and she re-interpreted that, visually.”

An illustration by Ward Alkhalaf from Lima Ishtadda ʿIshq al-Insan li-Hadha al-ʿAlam? (Why Did Humanity So Love This World?), the second book in LAL’s Young Readers series.
An illustration by Ward Alkhalaf from Lima Ishtadda ʿIshq al-Insan li-Hadha al-ʿAlam? (Why Did Humanity So Love This World?), the second book in LAL’s Young Readers series.

Asking the Right Questions

The second book in the series, Lima Ishtadda ʿIshq al-Insan li-Hadha al-ʿAlam? (Why Did Humanity So Love This World?), features excerpts from The Philosopher Responds by Abu Ḥayyan al-Tawḥidi and Abu ʿAli Miskawayh. This is another tenth-century collection, although instead of stories, it brings together al-Tawḥidi’s philosophical questions with Miskawayh’s responses.

Many of the questions are about human behavior: Why is eloquence of the tongue more difficult than eloquence of the pen? Why is it unseemly to praise oneself, while it seems proper to be praised? Other questions are about natural laws, such as: Why do children and non-rational animals suffer pain?

“Even if these answers are irrelevant, and even if they’re scientifically wrong, still, this was science at the time,” Orfali said. “And they make us think about how people in a thousand years will think about our science, and how we look at things.”

“What’s surprising is that we still ask many of the same questions,” he added. “And I think the questions are even more important than the answers. I wanted to convey this to the kids in schools, that asking the question is as important as answering it, if not more important.”

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This second book has a markedly different illustration style. The drawings, by the Syrian artist Ward Alkhalaf, sometimes provoke their own questions. According to Khansa and Orfali, the collection Why Did Humanity So Love This World? is for a slightly older audience than their first one, Weaving Words. The first book is for readers 9 and older, while the second is recommended for readers 13 and older.

But there is no upper limit, Orfali said. “My mother also gave it to her friends, who are 50-plus, and they enjoyed it.”

Like all good literature for young readers, “it’s for all age groups.”

Wise Madmen, Grammarians and Women

The third book in the series, set to arrive this month, is Abu al-Qasim al-Naysaburi’s ‘Uqala’ al-Majanin (Wise Madmen). Although this book comes from around the same time period, other forthcoming texts are from other periods, and they will also include a wide range of styles, genres, and subjects. They are also considering bilingual texts or English-language translations.

The forthcoming anthology Sadaqa (Friendship) is not based on selections from a single text. Rather, Orfali said, “we put a Quranic verse, and then a hadith, and then a proverb, and then a poem and a risala, all together, in dialogue with each other.”

Also forthcoming are Akhbar al-Nahwiyin (Biographies of the Grammarians) and Akhbar al-Nisa’ (Biographies of Women). The latter is being illustrated in a contemporary comix style by award-winning Lebanese graphic novelist Lena Merhej. “And since women’s history as not as centered,” Khansa said, “she picked a form of comix that’s also not mainstream.”

“What’s surprising is that we still ask many of the same questions.”

Bilal Orfali
 A co-editor of the LAL Young Readers series

Also forthcoming are a collection focusing on the great tenth-century poet al-Mutanabbi, which is being illustrated by the celebrated Egyptian artist Walid Taher, and Bilahwar, a story of Buddha, also being illustrated by Ward Alkhalaf.

All of these books upend young readers’ expectations in some way. This is particularly true of Biographies of the Grammarians.

“Kids usually hate grammar, and they look at grammar as being very dry,” Orfali said. “But it’s actually very lively, and so this text is a tribute to this intellectual tradition in Arabic. And they’re very funny texts about grammarians. So it’s to change the idea of how we look at grammar.”

Beyond the Text: Music, Art and Performance 

All the Young Readers books are available free, in PDF form, on the Library of Arabic Literature website. Printed versions are also being distributed to schools and educational nongovernmental organizations around the world at no cost.

Philip Kennedy, general editor of the Library of Arabic Literature, said, “It is a source of great pride for LAL that we are now also making significant works of Arabic literature available to school-age children.”

But these texts also have lives beyond the printed page. The Young Readers team has already engaged professional storyteller Sally Shalabi, professionally known as Shalabieh al Hakawatieh, to record stories from the Weaving Words collection. These charming five- to ten-minute audio performances have begun to appear on SoundCloud.

This way, Orfali said, the stories can reach an even a wider audience: “kids before they go to bed.”

Khansa and Orfali had planned to invite Shalabieh to perform the stories from Weaving Words at this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair. Unfortunately, the fair was canceled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Shutdowns around Covid-19 have also prevented other planned tours and workshops, they said.

However, they continue to plan new ways to bring these texts to fresh life. Khansa mentioned possible interpretations by Kinan Azmeh and Kevork Mourad, who do music and live illustration. And both Khansa and Orfali will be teaching a joint course in literature and performance at the American University of Beirut with theater artist Sahar Assaf.

“Weaving Words will be part of that,” Khansa said. “It will be available, accessible, and flexible—to be used in different ways.”

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