Journalists Reem Makhoul and her husband Stephen Farrell have covered Palestine and other issues in the Middle East, but most recently the two co-authored a children’s book that reflected the life of Sheherazade, their daughter, titled “The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination.”
Makhoul discussed how the book came to be, its theme and how it will help children maintain the connection with their ancestors’ culture.
Palestine in America: How did the idea of writing “The girl who lost her imagination” come about?
Reem Makhoul The idea for the book came in stages. First, I knew that whatever I wrote, it should be in conversational Arabic, to help my own young daughter learn the language that she hears and speaks every day. It felt right for a book that was consciously trying to do something different to be in a different setting from many Middle Eastern books. So we made it a story about a young Arab girl growing up in the diaspora—in New York City. We had no shortage of material from the clever and funny things that our daughter—like all children—says to us every day. She likes rainbows and we wanted to give each book a focus—colors, numbers, shapes etc.—so a book about an imaginative young girl in New York City exploring colors gradually took shape.
PiA: Why did you choose to write it in “Shami” dialect as opposed to “Fusha” dialect?
RM: I am actually a triplet—two identical sisters and a brother—so from a very early age I have been surrounded by a hubbub of words and conversation. Even as a young girl I used to wonder why children’s books and children’s cartoons were all in fussha, they sounded so odd to me, with formal Arabic coming out of the mouths of child characters. When I had my daughter, I decided to write my own in conversational Arabic. Put simply, I wanted a book where I could just read what was on the page, without translating it in my head from “fusha” to “amiyyeh.”
PiA: What is the main theme behind the book?
RM: It’s about a young Arab girl growing up in New York City. The story is based around her love of rainbows and her active imagination, which we turned into a separate character in its own right. This allowed our wonderful Lebanese illustrator, Fouad Mezher, to play on the dual meaning of the word ‘khayaal’ as both imagination and shadow. The book is about a girl who loses her imagination, why it happens, and how she gets it back again.
PiA: As a Palestinian, does the book carry any of your personal experiences as a little girl growing up in historic Palestine?
RM: No, it is quite deliberately about the experiences of my young daughter growing up in the diaspora. Of course the things I see and feel about New York City are shaped by the fact that I grew up in a tiny village that could not be farther away, in a million different ways, from New York. But there are many children’s books set in the Middle East. There is also a large Arab diaspora. I have now lived in both worlds, and I thought it would be more interesting to set it in a different place. We do, however, plan a series and we think that the New York setting will only be fresh for two or three of the books. At some point we are going to see Sheherazade back in Palestine, on her grandparents’ farm in the Galilee, helping them in the olive groves and vegetable gardens.
PiA: In your opinion, how do you think books such as yours help children growing up in multicultural societies be in touch and learn about their roots?
RM: It is sometimes hard for children to understand their language and cultural heritage, if they are living outside the Middle East, in countries where Arabic does not surround them every day, and it is not the language spoken at their school. Since I moved to America I have had many conversations with diaspora friends lamenting the lack of Arabic in their children’s lives.
What we were hoping to accomplish is that young Arab children, who grow up in the diaspora can read a book that they can relate to and be proud of their language and roots. We have a friend who told us that her daughter goes around carrying the book and showing it to her friends, and that it makes her feel unique to have Arabic in her life.
By publishing new stories with modern themes in contemporary settings we hope that we are producing reading and learning materials that children can relate to, and enjoy.
PiA: Where can our readers find more information about Ossass Stories?
RM: We have a website—www.Ossass-Stories.com—which goes into more detail about the publishing project and what it is trying to achieve. We have an active Facebook account at https://www.facebook.com/OssassStories, a Twitter feed (https://twitter.com/OssassStories), and if people want to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org I am delighted to answer questions.