As soon as my husband and I found out we were pregnant with our daughter Samya, who was born last March, we knew we wanted to raise her to speak Arabic. Since my husband is a midwestern from Kansas who didn’t know what zaatar was and refused to eat plain yogurt until he met me, we decided we were going to follow the OPOL method. One parent one language. I would speak to her in Arabic and my husband would speak to her in English. (Check back with me in two years to see if it works!)
Meanwhile, I began my search for children’s books in Arabic, enlisting friends and family members from Ramallah to Amman to Dubai. I was sorely disappointed. The books were all written in Fus'ha, classical Arabic that sounded weird when I tried to read it to a seven-month old. They lacked the lyrical ease and rhythmic flow of classics like “Little Blue Truck” or “Goodnight Moon”. The illustrations were wanting. Many were sexist, with stereotypical images of mommies and daddies that didn’t apply to our lives. I asked some of my colleagues in Dubai-parents who are all Arab, work in Arabic and live in the Arab world-what they read to their kids. “Books in English…ugh” sighed one of them. Others confided their kids barely spoke Arabic anyway. This was going to be harder than I thought.
This is why I was pleasantly surprised when my sister gifted my daughter two gorgeous, beautifully illustrated children’s books in colloquial Arabic, written in a Levantine, or Shami dialect, not classical Arabic. The stories take place in New York, the main protagonist is a spunky girl with a wild imagination named Shehrezad. She goes to playgrounds, rides the subway and asks a lot of questions about falling leaves and busy cars. They would be perfect for Samya.
A little bit of googling lead me to the author, Reem Makhoul, a Palestinian journalist (like me) who married a non-Arab (like me) and lived in the US (like me) who found it difficult to find Arabic books to read to her daughter Shehrezad (who is the inspiration behind the books.) Unlike me, Reem actually did something about it. In 2015 Reem wrote her own books and founded a publishing house (Ossass) and produced two copies of each book, one in Levantine dialect and the other in Egyptian. Oh, she also managed to have another baby girl and move to London from New York in the meanwhile.
I was so impressed by Reem that I ended up doing a story about her books. What I didn’t expect was the negative reactions from people who commented on the story on social media: people who thought colloquial dialects were going to ruin the Arabic language, people who said colloquial dialects sounded ugly and would raise a generation of uninformed children. Reem has a different take, she told me she doesn’t think we should be afraid of change, that colloquial dialect reflect our culture and communities and take us places in a way that Fus'ha, or classical Arabic, does not. “It’s a gateway to reading and learning Fus'ha” Reem said “colloquial dialects are what our children, who live outside the Arab world, hear.”
Reem hopes she will eventually be able to publish books in more Arabic dialects, so children will be able to relate to the characters. Despite what her detractors claim, the competition to her books are not books written in Fus'ha, rather, they are books we read to our children in other languages.
Muna Shikaki is a correspondent for Al Arabiya News Channel based in Washington DC. She tweets @Munashik
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