Children’s literature: Special Syrian endeavor in the land of asylum
Enab Baladi – Lujain Mourad
“I’m about to blow up,” the storyteller shouts, pointing with his hands to the image of the bladder in the story he chose to tell the children, and the children who listened with interest and curiosity barked in laughter.
Harun al-Zeer, owner of Roya (Vision) Book House, which specializes in children’s literature, sits in a glass room whose shelves are filled with children’s stories, telling a story to children of different ages, united by a passion for reading and learning, and their families’ attempts to create a strong relationship between them and books.
As part of the “Let’s Tell a Story” event, which he attended this summer, al-Zeer tries, through his humorous educational story “I Am About to Blow up,” to introduce children to the urinary system and the proper way to preserve it.
Attempts and successes
During the past years, there have been many attempts to revive children’s literature by the pens of Syrian writers, as hundreds of Syrian families in the countries of asylum seek to link their children to Arab culture.
Some written attempts have succeeded in obtaining Arab and international awards for their ability to touch reality and their compatibility with international standards.
The organizers of the “Let’s Tell a Story” event say that it is an attempt to shed light on children’s literature and enhance the role of this type of literature in developing children’s abilities.
Key to culture
The fears of many Syrians in the countries of asylum have increased that their children will forget the Arabic language, which they see as part of their children’s identity, especially while they are studying in schools teaching in the languages of the countries to which circumstances forced them to resort to.
Batoul Huzaifa, a writer of educational children’s stories, told Enab Baladi on the sidelines of the “Let’s Tell a Story” event that the failure of attempts to find Arabic books to preserve the language of her children after they fled to Turkey, prompted her and her husband, Harun al-Zeer, to reopen the Roya Book House after the war forced them to close it in Syria.
Huzaifa’s efforts, since she arrived in Turkey, have focused on teaching her children the Arabic language, as it is the “key to culture” that ensures her children’s adherence to their origin and preserves the dream of returning to Syria, as she described it.
Al-Zeer’s fears of losing his children’s language were nothing but a motive for reopening the book house, according to what he told Enab Baladi, considering that the family’s role is essential in preserving the Arabic language.
The writer pointed out that reading Arabic stories to the child constitutes a strong link between the child and his language.
Fatima Sheikh Ibrahim, who attended the “Let’s Tell a Story” event with her three children, said that preserving the child’s first language makes him/her learn other languages and cultures without losing their identity.
After fleeing to Turkey or Europe, Syrian families relied on shipping children’s books from Arab publishing houses in Egypt and Lebanon, but the high shipping fees encouraged the opening of publishing houses in Turkey.
Mothers as story writers
Children’s literature that includes fairy tales, lullabies, fables, and folk songs is characterized as one of the best ways to communicate mothers’ messages to their children smoothly and easily through a language close to the child’s thinking style, Huzaifa said as she was explaining the relationship between raising her children and her beginnings as a writer of children’s literature.
“I write what my children need to read because my literary life grew up with my children,” adding that her very close relationship with her children helped her develop her writing ability.
Through the training courses that Huzaifa conducted to transfer her experience in writing stories to new writers, she noticed that there is a great demand from mothers to take up this experience.
The diversity of specializations of mothers and those attending the training course contributed to creating different ideas, in line with the reality of the children and the culture and information of mothers, according to Huzaifa.
Reality of children’s literature
Children’s literature did not gain much importance in previous times, despite the presence of hundreds of children’s stories written by Syrian writers.
“In the first book fair we participated in, one of the visitors said, give me stories worth a hundred Syrian pounds,” Huzaifa laughs, recalling this disrespectful look at the role of children’s literature years ago.
She added that the real shift between the previous view of children’s literature and the current view lies in giving greater importance to genre rather than quantity.
Huzaifa monitored in the recent book fair that Roya House participated in that parents are now browsing through stories before buying them, which she considered as an indication of giving more importance to children’s literature.
Children’s literature, the body of written works and accompanying illustrations produced in order to entertain or instruct young people.
The genre encompasses a wide range of works, including acknowledged classics of world literature, picture books and easy-to-read stories written exclusively for children, and fairy tales, lullabies, fables, folk songs, and other primarily orally transmitted materials.
Children’s literature and Syrian revolution
Despite the increasing number of Syrians writing children’s stories, there are few books that talk about Syria or the Syrian revolution.
Al-Zeer says that books that talk about Syrian cities, life in Syria, and the “heroes of the Syrian revolution” play an important role in conveying the reality of what Syrians lived through and linking children to their reality.
Al-Zeer talks about the story he is holding in his hand, “this is maybe the only story that has recently shed light on the reality in Syria,” which he titled “Jana and the Village of the Valley.”
The story deals with the suffering of displacement imposed by the war on the children with their families and the harsh conditions they live in, far from all the memories of the homes they loved.
“Jana and the Village of the Valley” conveyed the feelings of the children of displacement camps through a fictional plot and pictures appropriate to their young ages and their ability to relate to and absorb events and won the “Sharjah Child Book Award” for the year 2021.
“We think constantly, and we have many ideas that connect children to their cause,” Huzaifa said, stressing the need for children to remain connected to their reality and away from the image of a “rosy life.”
Children as jury
Children are the “first arbiter” of books, as the quality of books depends largely on children’s interaction with them and their ability to absorb them and imagine their details.
Al-Zeer and Huzaifa work to involve their children in composing the stories and express their opinion on the drawings and content to evaluate the story before printing it, they said.
Huzaifa considered that the participation of her children in writing stories contributes to their development as they are the target group of books, pointing out the need for a jury of children in Arab and international competitions for children’s literature, which gives them the opportunity to contribute to creating a better future for literature directed at them.
“The more I read, the more I know, the more I learn, and the more places I go (in my mind).”
“I Can Read with My Eyes Closed,” a children’s story
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