If things could talk
Rania Khallaf enjoys the first full-length novel for children in Arabic
11 - 17 January 2007
Issue No. 827
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Clockwise from left: battle in the dining room; book cover of King of Things; school deputy principal El-Hanash
Arab children read. This is a statement to be contended with, but a new, interactive book on the market lends it plenty of support. Rather than "Once upon a time", it opens with the first day in the new school year, when Karim, the hero, says good-bye to his parents, who are off to work in the Gulf. But Karim also talks to his parents car and -- even more surprisingly, on his way to school, to the walls and entrances of the surrounding buildings. Karim is not so crazy as gifted, however, as the reader soon realises: he possesses the power to talk to... things. And this is what the novel revolves around: the peculiar human-thing relationship -- incorporating a clash with two wicked boys in the context of a wider odyssey in which characters, who can speak back to Karim, as it turns out, repeatedly aid him in his endeavours -- good triumphs over evil again.
Written by Tarek Abdel-Bary, better-known as a professor of German literature and history at Ain Shams University, the 175-page King of Things is widely regarded as the longest Arabic book for children to date. But it was first published in German by the Swiss house Atlantis, with support from Pro Helvetia, in 2004. The principal obstacle in the way of its publication in Egypt was its length, which private publishers deemed inappropriate for child readers. In a recent seminar, veteran author of childrens books Yaqoub El-Sharouni pointed out that this is only to be expected throughout the Arab world in the light of lack of awareness of the "heavy industry" of childrens books: "Publishers want to sell; and they think a full-length novel for children wont sell." Published last year at Abdel-Barys own expense, however, King of Things proved so successful that a second edition is due to come out this month. "I had to form my own publishing team," the author explains, "starting with an illustrator and a designer. I think Ill do the same with my next book."
But what drove the professor in this direction in the first place? "It was my mother who inspired me," Abdel-Bary confesses. A sensitive woman, he explained, she had a deeply intimate relationship with all the things in her life, treating them gently and even thanking them when they accomplished their tasks -- the way she treated her children. Each thing had a name: the car was called Zakzouka, the washing machine Meshmesha. Even her marital ring was a close friend: Abdel-Bary would wake up in the middle of the night to find her whispering to it, recalling his already dead father. "I wondered whether the things ever replied to my mother," he says. "If they had stories to tell her, like the stories she told them, what would they be about? What would things say if they could speak?" And hence, fortunately for Arab children, this gripping foray into fantasy, a framework that enables Abdel-Bary to tackle some of the most serious issues, from corruption to democracy, without the slightest hint of moralising. So, for example, the school blackboards and desks complain of neglect -- and of students kicking and spitting on them -- points made by their elected representative during the school festival. In a simple, dramatic way, the reader learns about democratic process.
It took Abdel-Aziz Mohamed, 13, a student of a French school, a month to complete the novel. "It is so convincing," he says, "I started expecting everything to talk to me." More importantly, the book changed the way Abdel-Aziz relates to the inanimate: "I know now more than before that we should respect everything around us. Things that are not living things must have some kind of feeling too. I got Karims political point as well -- easy. Its actually the part I like the most. I wish there were more novels like King of Things." Which bears out Abdel-Barys idea of fostering identification with the hero through the development of "weak points" that make him more credible: Karims fear of rats, for example, or the way he is deceived by a fellow schoolgirl who, envious of his gift, pretends to be his friend while secretly serving the interests of his enemies: both are examples of the "imperfection" Abdel-Bary deems necessary in this day and age. Nor was cultural specificity undermine success in the West: "the aesthetics of the Thousand and One Nights are still prevalent, besides which they too believe in genies and spirits."
Critics have been eager to point out the similarity in character and setting with the Harry Potter books, but Abdel-Bary insists that he only read the latter after he had completed the novel. Still, El-Sharouni points out that Karim and Harry are "both smart and gentle boys who have extraordinary powers"; more significantly, he says, "Karim also reminds me of El-Shater Hassan, the Egyptian folk hero who is also a boy -- an ordinary person with tremendous inner power." Mariam Ayman, 12, is too busy studying to finish the book, ... Mariam concedes that she found King of Things a huge improvement on Arabic book series for children like the Cocktail 2000 books and "all that boring stuff" -- the most widespread. With 60 per cent of the population under 18, however, as Abdel-Bary puts it, why is there a dearth of this kind of literature? He is keen on his book, for one, having wider circulation in the Arab world.
That it should be turned into a film -- in collaboration with An Arab Children Satellite Channel, as he eagerly announced on the occasion -- should help accomplish this, at least.