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from the April 2020 issue

Time-Travelers, Fisherwomen, and Sleuths: Arabic Young Adult Literature

This month’s feature brings together excerpts from three Arabic young adult novels in which young women defy expectations set by their families, society—and even themselves.

While Arabic publishing has historically focused on literature for adults and young children, recent years have seen an increasing number of titles aimed at a young adult readership. “Since the middle of the last decade . . . tens of innovative novels for tweens and teens have started appearing in Arabic each year,” M. Lynx Qualey wrote for the Global Literature in Libraries Initiative in 2017. Thanks to initiatives such as the Tamer Institute, young adult (YA) and middle grade literature has been particularly cultivated and considered a serious form in Palestine in particular, and the Etisalat Award for Arabic Children's Literature has also had a great influence on the developing field. As the most important and prestigious award for children’s literature in the Arab world, the Etisalat Award bestows prizes in six categories: children’s book, text, illustrations, production, wordless picture book, and—as of 2013—young adult book.

In the past decade, YA titles like The Servant by Fatima Sharafeddine and Code Name: Butterfly by Ahlam Bsharat have not only seen success in Arabic—The Servant, for instance, won the Best Book award at the Beirut International Book Fair in 2010—they have also begun to make their way into English. It should be noted that categories of middle grade, young adult, and adult literature do not always map neatly between Arabic and English, and books that are written for a YA readership in Arabic might be considered middle grade or adult literature in English. Yet stories like those included in this feature demonstrate that these books can be enjoyed by readers of many ages.

Our excerpt from Sonia Nimr’s Thunderbird begins with a strange and mysterious prediction from the local fortune-teller for the orphan girl Noor. Resented by the relatives she now lives with, Noor has only one ally, her beloved grandmother. Shortly before she dies, Grandmother gives Noor a gift: a strange ring from her father. In this fantastic, time-traveling novel, Noor teams up with a djinn (in the body of a cat), discovers that the King of the Djinn needs her help to save the world, and travels 500 years back in time—although not before a harrowing trip through checkpoints to get to contemporary Jerusalem. Thunderbird is the first title in a fantasy trilogy, the second of which is set to be released in April 2020Sonia Nimr is a leading Palestinian author and storyteller who weaves together contemporary realism with magical folklore. She won an Etisalat Award in 2014 and was shortlisted for the prize for Thunderbird in 2017.

In Taghreed Najjar’s Against the Tide, fifteen-year-old Yusra is faced with a choice. When the course of her family’s life in contemporary Gaza changes forever, she must either accept her new life as it is or defy society’s expectations. So she does something no woman in Gaza has ever done before: support her family by becoming a fisherwoman. The book is inspired by the true story of a young Palestinian girl named Madelein Callab, who became Gaza’s first fisherwoman at the age of fifteen. Taghreed Najjar is a Palestinian-Jordanian author of over fifty books for children and young adults. She has twice been awarded the Etisalat Award and has been shortlisted three times (including for Against the Tide in 2013). She is also the founder of Dar al-Salwa publishing house.

Djamila Morani’s The Djinn’s Apple takes place in Baghdad in the Abbasid period, during the rule of Harun Al-Rashid (786–809). In the excerpt included here, "Black Saturday," twelve-year-old Nardeen witnesses the assassination of her family and narrowly escapes herself. Part crime novel, part historical fiction, The Djinn's Apple follows gutsy Nardeen as she seeks to discover who wanted her father dead—and why. Djamila Morani is an Algerian writer who works as a teacher of Arabic language and literature. She is the author of The Djinn’s Apple and Crown of Sin.

This feature is presented by translators from ArabKidLitNow, a collective dedicated to the discovery, promotion, and translation of Arabic literature for young readers. The collective’s website features an overview of the most exciting young adult and children’s books currently being released in Arabic, helping Arabic children’s literature find audiences in new languages around the world. ArabKidLitNow is the joint effort of translator-writer-critics Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp, Emily Danby, Nashwa Gowanlock, Sawad Hussain, Elisabeth Jaquette, M. Lynx Qualey, and Hend Saeed.

This year alone, translators from the collective are bringing three Arabic young adult novels into English: Ghady & Rawan by Fatima Sharafeddine and Samar Mahfouz Barraj (translated by M. Lynx Qualey and Sawad Hussain, both contributors to this issue), Trees for the Absentees by Ahlam Bsharat (translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp and Sue Copeland), and Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands by Sonia Nimr (translated by M. Lynx Qualey). So if Noor’s time-traveling in Thunderbird, Yusra’s seafaring in Against the Tide, and Nardeen’s investigations in The Djinn’s Apple pique your interest, many more untranslated books await.

© 2020 by Elisabeth Jaquette. All rights reserved.

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