Lebanon

In Search of Lebanese Children’s Literature

squarekufic-smallAs long as there’s hardly anything to talk about in Lebanese politics, allow me to gripe about another subject close to my heart, namely children’s literature written in Lebanese Arabic.

Here’s the problem: there isn’t any.

As most of you know, I spent the last academic year living in Beirut, writing my dissertation. Part of the reasoning behind this move was to expose my two year-old daughter to a lot more Arabic than she was hearing in Boston, and as I could have worked on my thesis from just about anywhere, I decided that spending my research year in Lebanon — near family and friends — made good sense.

My daughter L. is a bibliophile. Having inherited my wife’s superb memory and amazing attention for detail, she seems to have learned by heart several shelves worth of books, to the extent that if I stop mid-sentence in any one of them, she’ll gently goad me on by completing the sentence. The kid loves books, and one of my goals for the year was to introduce her to a whole new set, written in Arabic.

As I quickly discovered, however, the vast majority of children’s books to be found in Beirut (one of the region’s publishing capitals) are written in Modern Standard Arabic (fuṣḥā), the prestige dialect of the language (used in virtually all kinds of writing [newspapers, books, magazines], TV news programs, etc., but not in everyday speech.) Children’s books are treated like all other literature and therefore written in the standard language, a fact which seems — in my view — to militate against a child developing a love of books.

Let me make one thing clear: I am not one of those neo-Phoenician anti-fuṣḥā crusaders that seem to be so prevalent among the Lebanese. I do not advocate dumping Modern Standard Arabic altogether and replacing it with some kind of Sa’id `Aql-inspired vernacular alphabet. After all, I’m currently in the process of earning a doctorate in classical Arabic literature and Islamic studies… I would not have spent years studying a language and literature that I secretly loathe and would like to see sink into oblivion.

However, that being said, I simply don’t feel that MSA is all that well suited to children’s books. When I made this point to various bewildered booksellers in Beirut, the standard response was: “But if you read to them in Lebanese, how do you expect them to learn real Arabic?” To which my response has always been: “Why does it have to be a matter of either/or?” Setting aside the issue of anti-vernacular chauvinism (a subject for a different post), I don’t see why kids can’t be trusted to learn MSA even while enjoying having books read to them in colloquial Lebanese.

Here’s the basic problem. To a child’s ear, MSA sounds like what it is: a formal language that people don’t use in everyday speech. It is a language that has to be learned in school, not like the mother tongue that kids grow up speaking. As a result, children’s books written in fuṣḥā have a way of sounding antiquated at best, when read aloud. The immediacy, vividness, and general “at-home” quality that one feels in one’s own mother tongue is, to a large part, lost in MSA, unless one has devoted years to reading, writing, and developing fluency within it.

Trying to interest a kid in a story where vocabulary items for many common everyday objects are entirely different, and in which the language has an almost foreign feel to it is an uphill battle. Whereas L.’s English books instantly draw her into their world — the way all great books do — with characters who talk like her even as they teach her new phrases and expressions, the Arabic books I tried to read her failed to have the same effect.

That is, until I began to “translate” them back into colloquial Lebanese from MSA. Suddenly, a light seemed to go on and she was instantly interested in the plot and characters. I distinctly remember the first time that happened: I was reading her a book about a little girl’s visit to the doctor’s office, which was, of course, written in MSA. Here’s an attempt at an English equivalent:

Forsooth didst the nayward damsel alight upon the threshold of the quacksalver’s vestibule … A panic came upon her ‘ere her mother didst coax her forward, dreading the prick of the misprised instrument…

Ok, it’s not that bad, but you get the idea. There was very little in the original text that my daughter could relate to, and so it was no wonder that she was not interested in it until I translated it into a language that she could actually understand.

I’m not sure where I was going with this post, but perhaps other folks have some suggestions for good reading material (or, for that matter, good children’s TV programs in colloquial Lebanese).

Tomorrow, back to politics.

Update

(Comment from Joumana Medlej, an author of children’s books):

“A friend linked me to your post, asking if I knew of any… I can completely relate to your feelings and I for one would have read more Arabic books as a child if they hadn’t been in this trudging fus7a that still gives me a headache. That said, being co-author of children’s books that get translated into Arabic, I had to look again at why that was. For our particular case, the nonfiction contents don’t really lend themselves to daily speech, and since neither of us can write Arabic with sufficient proficiency, we left it to the translators and didn’t question their choice. Beyond that though I can vouch for how very difficult it is to write Lebanese with the Arabic script. Even the simplest texts (e.g. I’m translating another project, my comic book, into Leb) present dilemma upon dilemma. Do you write the qaf, or do you substitute a hamza? And so on. It’s an interesting challenge for the conceptually minded, but I expect even those authors who would consider writing in 3ammiya may feel Arabic that has a standardized spelling may be the safest route after all. Especially when you hit upon economics. It’s hard enough to sell Arabic language books – Lebanese who read avoid Arabic (or perhaps they do so because it is all fus7a) and the rest of the Arab world doesn’t seem to read (this from personal experience and from people who’ve worked in publication for a while). With fus7a there’s at least a possibility of a book spreading outside Lebanese borders. Finally, how many publishers in this part of the world take children readers seriously? We started making books because there were no local children’s books worth picking up. Things are getting better, but we’re still way behind.

I’m sharing this to try and explain the current situation, but I would like nothing more than for a change of attitude towards spoken Lebanese and an increased use of it in print. For me, I’m (modestly) starting with the comic book, but parents such as yourself can express these feelings to publishers. If they realize there is a demand for this, the business sense will kick in… Funnily it’s the one thing that trumps politics around here.”

(Comment from PN, a regular reader):

“I highly recommend the storybook series Silsilat Hikayat Walad min Beirut (Stories of a Child from Beirut) by Mr. Samah Idriss (publisher of al-Aadaab magazine)… Mr. Idriss wrote these books for his 2 daughters since he faced the same dilemma while living in the US. He uses a nice mix of MSA and colloquial Lebanese to draft fun and light stories. They maybe a bit early for 2-yr old L, but if she is really good with books, she may enjoy them. Our favorite is the story about Koussa bil laban (the Zuchini story); it is very much Lebanese.”

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Discussion

38 thoughts on “In Search of Lebanese Children’s Literature

  1. A friend linked me to your post, asking if I knew of any… I can completely relate to your feelings and I for one would have read more Arabic books as a child if they hadn’t been in this trudging fus7a that still gives me a headache. That said, being co-author of children’s books that get translated into Arabic, I had to look again at why that was. For our particular case, the nonfiction contents don’t really lend themselves to daily speech, and since neither of us can write Arabic with sufficient proficiency, we left it to the translators and didn’t question their choice. Beyond that though I can vouch for how very difficult it is to write Lebanese with the Arabic script. Even the simplest texts (e.g. I’m translating another project, my comic book, into Leb) present dilemma upon dilemma. Do you write the qaf, or do you substitute a hamza? And so on. It’s an interesting challenge for the conceptually minded, but I expect even those authors who would consider writing in 3ammiya may feel Arabic that has a standardized spelling may be the safest route after all. Especially when you hit upon economics. It’s hard enough to sell Arabic language books – Lebanese who read avoid Arabic (or perhaps they do so because it is all fus7a) and the rest of the Arab world doesn’t seem to read (this from personal experience and from people who’ve worked in publication for a while). With fus7a there’s at least a possibility of a book spreading outside Lebanese borders. Finally, how many publishers in this part of the world take children readers seriously? We started making books because there were no local children’s books worth picking up. Things are getting better, but we’re still way behind.
    I’m sharing this to try and explain the current situation, but I would like nothing more than for a change of attitude towards spoken Lebanese and an increased use of it in print. For me, I’m (modestly) starting with the comic book, but parents such as yourself can express these feelings to publishers. If they realize there is a demand for this, the business sense will kick in… Funnily it’s the one thing that trumps politics around here.

    Posted by Joumana Medlej | July 21, 2009, 1:47 am
  2. Definitely, when a two year old hears “na7awe”, unless she has been exposed to translated Mexican series, the kid won’t actually understand anything because it is not a language they know.

    Are you sure you found none? Because I think I got my nephew a couple of books written in Lebanese. I will check them out and get the name of the publisher.

    Posted by Liliane | July 21, 2009, 2:08 am
  3. Not having kids yet, I’d never thought about this problem, although it does arrive to a much lesser extent in French with the simple past, which is only used in written French and high fallutin discourse. So little children often get confused and start using the simple past in their speech, which sounds really funny: Papa, je vis un oisseau!

    I expect this post to bring out both the Fusha and the neo-Phoenician chauvinists. Good luck with the fallout and give L a kiss from 3mmu Sean!

    Posted by sean | July 21, 2009, 2:11 am
  4. You could try the samandal comics (you can download them). I’ve got a few editions and I haven’t read them all in any detail, but I seem to remember some written in colloquial Lebanese.

    Posted by 35east | July 21, 2009, 2:13 am
  5. Sorry, it’s early and I just woke up. I meant arise not arrive.

    Posted by sean | July 21, 2009, 2:14 am
  6. QN,

    I’m not sure if Colloquial vs standardised Arabic is anything like the Hebrew equivalents, it’s difficult to make an analogy to English.

    The old english is mostly just old. The written/spoken Hebrew are contemporaries, but almost different dialects. Perhaps a closer analogy is (The Queen’s) English and a dialect (like Jamaican Patois). Imagine a novel narrated in thick Potois.

    This might also give you a clue about the reluctance to write books in dialect. If the dialects are kept seperate enough and are different enough, you can keep both. The conversational-literary divide gives you a nice non arbitrary separation. Since the dialect is more fluid, it will tend to be easier. Once you start to read in colloquial, it seems needlessly difficult (but vitreous) to read in the standard version. The language slips.

    Hebrew has gone through such a slip with books published a generation or two ago sounding slightly strange to ‘modern.’ Old translations of foreign works are constantly updated. naturally, some people object.

    Anyway, blurring lines (eg newspapers, childrens’ books and technical books but not romance novels, poems and magazines) is a slippery slope.

    Posted by netsp | July 21, 2009, 2:20 am
  7. QN,

    I think this is broadly relevant. If nothing else, it might be a push to read to your daughter in pure Modern Standard Arabic, lest you sound like the family in the show.

    Posted by netsp | July 21, 2009, 2:27 am
  8. Hi Elias,

    Quite a refreshing post away from politics.

    Many Lebanese parents (in particular those residing abroad without extended family) would agree with you on this matter.

    The frequent discrepancy in used vocab and/or in pronunciation between MSA and everyday spoken Lebanese imposes a tough challenge even for kids living in Lebanon. Childrens’ books written in colloquial Lebanese would be a valuable resource particularly for those with special needs since the Arabic they get exposed to in textbooks is very much different from the spoken language that they already face challenges in comprehending on a daily basis.

    Having said that, I highly recommend the storybook series Silsilat Hikayat Walad fi Beirut (Stories of a Child from Beirut) by Mr. Samah Idriss (publisher: http://www.adabmag.com). Some here might not feel comfortable with his political affiliation, but there is no politics in these books. Mr. Idriss wrote these books for his 2 daughters since he faced the same dilemma while living in the US. He uses a nice mix of MSA and colloquial Lebanese to draft fun and light stories. They maybe a bit early for 2-yr old L, but if she is really good with books, she may enjoy them. Our favorite is the story about Koussa bil laban (the Zuchini story); it is very much Lebanese.

    Suggestion: why don’t you write a childrens’ series in spoken Lebanese? You can certainly make use of QN’s sense of humor and some cabby stories, but pleeeeease keep the politics out.

    Best.

    Posted by PN | July 21, 2009, 6:22 am
  9. PN

    Thanks so much for reminding me about Samah Idriss’s stories. Yes, actually, those are actually wonderful books, not only because of the mix of colloquial and MSA but also because of the subject matter… it seems very Lebanese, not generically Middle Eastern.

    I’m going to update this post with your comment and Joumana’s.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 21, 2009, 8:17 am
  10. You tell a sadly familiar tale — in the days when we naively thought that our half-Beiruti book-loving daughter might pick up some Arabic by osmosis we found little joy in the bookshops, although I do recall a slim volume from Al Saki here in London about Nora and the bateekh that was briefly a favourite. Daughter’s Arabic now confined to uncannily accurate mimics of her mother’s more profane Beiruti curses.

    More constructively my own university course in Arabic was enlivened by exposure to Kamal Abu Deeb’s theory about the “grammar of the colloquial”, which was very much at odds with the prevailing orthodoxy that treated the language as a branch of classical Greek or Latin. I also benefited a lot from a friend in Beirut who taught me to speak by “translating” fusha written texts into colloquial, an exercise that I am sure you could try while reading aloud from your fusha library.

    While on this linguistic subject, I can’t let pass your “mitigate” against….

    Posted by David | July 21, 2009, 8:35 am
  11. David

    Thanks for catching that. Now I can expect Sean to pipe up, accusing me of being a pedant.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 21, 2009, 8:44 am
  12. Netsp,

    As far as I know, modern Hebrew is not nearly as diglossic as Arabic. After the revival of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language, the diglossia that existed in classical and medieval Jewish communities (with different varieties of Hebrew used [sometimes alongside other languages like Yiddish, Aramaic, etc] in different language environments) mostly subsided.

    Today, when you read an Israeli newspaper, how different is the language used from what you speak at home? Is the difference much more pronounced than the difference between the language of the New York Times and the language I’m using in this comment?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 21, 2009, 9:45 am
  13. QN,

    Yes the difference is bigger. Less so today then 20 years ago, but still quite different. The written language and the spoken language are different in both vocabulary and grammar. People find it difficult to write as they would speak. The only people who speak how they would write are Hebrew teachers, and they sound very weird.

    My understanding is that in Arabic the literary-spoken divide is much greater though. I was trying to make a qualitative comparison rather then a quantitative one.

    BTW, the link above is an example of Israeli Arabic.

    Posted by netsp | July 21, 2009, 9:59 am
  14. thanks. it’s really nice to see posts like this one. a person who might have some interesting comments is graphic artist/typographer pascal zoghbi — his blog is http://www.29letters.wordpress.com/

    Posted by j anthony | July 21, 2009, 10:40 am
  15. You may want to check Rose Ghurayyib. She is a pioneer and she wrote in both colloquial Lebanese and MSA.
    You may also want to check Ahmed Naguib from Egypt who won the state prize. You may even find his works in pictured comic format.
    You also should not miss the classical tales of Sinbad, Ali Baba, Aladdin and other tales from the Arabian Nights. You can find these in videos mostly in MSA (Fusha). The audiovisual aspect is powerful in achieving comprehension as the child watches and listens over and over again.

    Posted by majid | July 21, 2009, 1:17 pm
  16. Interesting post. Niloofar Haeri discusses some realted issues in _Sacred language, ordinary people_

    http://books.google.com/books?id=qw5_uzT3gh8C&lpg=PP1&dq=Niloofar%20Haeri&pg=PP1

    Posted by WH | July 21, 2009, 5:12 pm
  17. Actually, there is a fantastic series of books, for young children and young teens, that are fun to read, beautifully illustrated and written in Lebanese. They’re produced by Dar al Ombus and can be found at CDtheque and some branches of Lib Antoine.

    Posted by Ed | July 22, 2009, 1:58 am
  18. You touched down on an interesting issue of formal and slang Arabic.
    for me the formal language is dead and each Arabic nation need to develop its’ own language. On the other hand, the formal Arabic is the language that unites all the Arabs to understand each other.
    As you have mentioned, why can’t the formal and the slang co-exist.
    The same text can be written in formal or slang Arabic depending on the audience and the aim.

    i am with the development of a Lebanese Arab written language.
    it would be mush more easier for everyday work and life documents, emails, chats,….

    Backing up this idea, most of the Lebanese when they write work of social documents, they write it in English or French, and always find it to hard to write in the formal Arabic.

    Posted by pascal zoghbi | July 22, 2009, 5:45 am
  19. Ed

    I’ve seen the Dar al-Ombuz books, and they are indeed beautiful. I don’t remember them being written in Lebanese, though. Plus, they’re for older kids, I’d say. The surreal quality is a little bit frightening to a three year-old.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 22, 2009, 8:15 am
  20. Dar Qonboz is fanatic about fus7a. As I recall from the founder’s own words, it was created explicitly to promote Arabic in publications – and by that they didn’t mean daily speech. Also the books are written, seemingly, to please the author’s own sense of what books should be like, with no thought at all given to what may interest or be suitable for children.

    Posted by Joumana Medlej | July 22, 2009, 8:28 am
  21. Qifa,

    35east has already mentionned samandal. Here’s the link: http://www.samandal.org/

    I haven’t gone through them fully to see if they’re any good or addressed to all ages.

    haytham

    Posted by haytham | July 22, 2009, 11:36 am
  22. Hi Haytham, 35east,

    Thanks for the samandal link. I know the magazine well as it was founded by some friends.

    Samandal does have a lot of Lebanese Arabic but it’s really geared toward an adult (or teenage) audience.

    What I’m looking for are books suitable for children — age 2-6.

    Thx

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 22, 2009, 12:57 pm
  23. Qifa, why not write a book yourself for your daughter? If she likes it, you could publish it. Many of the best children’s books were written by parents for their own children.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | July 24, 2009, 6:01 am
  24. Ben

    I’ve thought of that. Maybe I’ll forgo my dissertation and this pesky blog for a week or so and write a bunch of kids books.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 24, 2009, 8:45 am
  25. I don’t understand the problem. I grew up in the “German” speaking part of Switzerland, where we have the same situation: all our books are written in standard German, but we speak a dialect which is quite different (a German from Germany doesn’t understand our language). Swiss parents are accustomed to translate the text as they read the story to their children. Why is this a problem to a literate Libanese father?
    The advantage of this simultaneous translation is that the mother/father will use her/his original dialect, that spoken in her village/town and not the inevitably standardised “Lebanese” of a book. Because if you try to write in vernacular, you have to decide which one: the one spoken in the North or the one from the South, the one from Burj el-Barajneh or the one from Ashrafieh? The one of the bourgeois or the one of the peasants?

    Jurg

    Posted by Jurg Bischoff | July 24, 2009, 5:30 pm
  26. Dear Jurg

    While it is certainly possible to translate MSA books as one goes along, the main problem I’ve found is that the result just doesn’t “sound Lebanese”.

    It’s hard for me to explain this. But I’ve looked at many, many children’s books in MSA and very few of them seem to relate to the kinds of situations and vocabulary that a Lebanese child finds culturally familiar. I find myself regularly scratching my head, racking my brain for the word for some unfamiliar animal or vegetable that has never been seen within a thousand miles of Lebanon, or coming out with cumbersome sentences to explain an expression that just doesn’t translate well (because it was originally translated from ANOTHER language into MSA for the book!)

    This is obviously not just a linguistic problem, but also a creative one. There simply are not enough books written by Lebanese authors for Lebanese kids. Maybe the only remedy is to write my own books for L., as Ben suggested above.

    Take a look at this article which explains how Samah Idriss came to write his series of kids books. It gets at what I’m trying to say here.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | July 24, 2009, 6:47 pm
  27. Have you tried Mahdi’s edition of Alf Layla in the original MA? Surely you must have. Or is it for too old a reading age? I remember trying to make some clumsy point in a seminar about its cadences, or rhythms, or something that makes it read more like speech than other literature. Maybe this is a quality thing as well – I agree with your comment that it is a creative issue – the Arabic children’s books, and TV, I have seen tend to be bad qua bad, rather than bad qua fusha. And another thing: how would you feel about the morality of Alf Layla for young ears? Ho ho.

    Posted by JH | July 25, 2009, 6:11 am
  28. Mahdi’s edition of Alf Layla wa Layla is in a charming mixture of colloquial Arabic (with abundant grammatical errors) and 13th-century Syrian/Egyptian dialect. It’s a delightful text, but it’s not easy for scholars to make sense of, never mind 2-year-olds, and of course it’s full of sex.

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | July 25, 2009, 7:02 am
  29. … I mean, “a charming mixture of literary Arabic…”

    Posted by Benjamin Geer | July 25, 2009, 7:03 am
  30. Hi Qifa,

    Greetings from Levantine Cultural Center in Los Angeles. We are a nonprofit organization showcasing the arts and cultures of the Middle East. I am wondering, would you grant us permission to post this piece in our monthly online magazine?

    Thanks in advance for your time and attention.

    Posted by Catherine | August 1, 2009, 1:31 pm
  31. Hi Catherine,

    Sure, that would be fine. If you’d link to the blog too, that would be swell.

    thx,
    Elias

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | August 1, 2009, 1:53 pm
  32. You could find stories for kids on my blog under Fi`eet, Iṡṡaṡ la zzġaar-Stories for kids, and many other things in Lebanese.

    Invite your friends as well.

    I will be posting new stuff on my blog on a regular basis.

    Ask you will be given!

    I am looking forward hearing from you.

    Ahla w sahla!

    Posted by Hicham Bourjaili | August 9, 2009, 8:00 pm
  33. Hello Hicham,

    can you please repost your blog address? It is not readable on my machine.

    thanks!

    Posted by Paty | October 19, 2009, 4:33 pm

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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