A Project of the International Youth Library
Despite their geographical size as well as cultural or political importance, Arabic-speaking countries still play a comparatively minor role in international children’s and youth literature. Even though interest has grown in recent years, Arabic-language children’s and young adult books, and their authors and illustrators are little noticed outside. This is also true of the German-language book market, in which translations from Arabic are still in short supply and the availability of non-translated original-language books is low. There are hardly any booksellers specialising in Arabic literature. Public libraries and school libraries are often inadequately equipped with books for young Arabic-speaking readers. One reason for this is the lack of information for librarians, teachers, and other mediators about trends and recommendable titles. The authors and illustrators, topics and contents of Arabic-language children’s books are mostly unknown in Germany, although the need and interest for exchange with the Arabic-speaking world has grown.
This lack of knowledge and access has become particularly evident since 2015, when the number of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq and other countries arriving in Europe greatly increased. A large proportion of the migrants arrived in Germany, where they needed to be sheltered, cared for and integrated as quickly as possible. The demand for original-language multilingual media soon grew in libraries and schools as well as in institutions where refugees and those seeking protection live. Children’s books are important mediums and mediators for integration. They can be inclusive and promote intercultural exchange. Books written in the original language can provide a piece of home for young people who have fled war or poverty and have often only preserved their language as a link to their origins. At the same time, this literature can also build bridges to the Arab world, which, in Germany as well as in other places, is often perceived in a stereotypical and prejudiced way. The prerequisite for a productive exchange is that Arab children’s and youth books are made known in German-speaking countries, brought to libraries and that translations are encouraged.
This situation inspired a three-year project, which the International Youth Library (IYL) launched in 2017 and was pioneering in Germany. It was funded by the City of Munich and aimed to provide an insight into Arabic-language children’s literature and recommend books that might be suitable for use in libraries, kindergartens and schools. Furthermore, German-language publishers should be encouraged to take a closer look at the children’s book production in Arabic-speaking countries and to discover books that could be of interest to their book market and deserve to be translated.
The IYL was happy to find Syrian orientalist and cultural historian Azad Hamoto, who has been living in Munich for several years, to work on this project. The work began with a survey of the Arabic-language children’s book market. Which subjects, themes and genres play a role? Which authors and illustrators deserve special attention? Where are interesting, important publishers located? With these questions in mind, numerous titles from the current publishing programmes were reviewed and critically examined as part of the project. Hasmig Chahinian, specialist for Arabic-language children’s and youth literature at the Centre National de la littérature pour la jeunesse (CNLJ – IBBY France) at the French National Library, assisted with valuable advice and insights.
German-language catalogues for 2018, 2019 and 2021.
In 2018, the IYL published a reference catalogue presenting recommended titles. In 2019, 2020 and 2021, three more catalogues followed. The 28-page German-language catalogues each offer 40 annotated titles along with bibliographic data, images of the book covers, and brief biographical information on authors and illustrators, as well as a name and subject index.
When the first catalogue was released, the IYL organised workshop events in cooperation with the Munich City Library. The book selection and the results of the project were presented to the public, accompanied by a small book exhibition.
Lebanese publisher Azad Hamoto moderated a discussion between author Nabiha Mheidly (Al Hadaek publishing house), the Egyptian illustrator Walid Taher and Hasmig Chahinian (CNLJ – IBBY France) who discussed the themes, challenges and limits of Arabic-language children’s literature. The IYL also organised workshops with Nabiha Mheidly and Walid Taher in primary schools.
A workshop with Walid Taher.
For the publication of the second catalogue in 2019, the library organised another event giving an overview of the trends and characteristics of Arabic-language children’s literature. The other part of the programme was a ‘literary-musical journey’: texts from five books presented in the catalogue were read in Arabic and in German translation. Two musicians accompanied the reading with Arabic singing, oud playing and percussion.
Literary musical journey, 2021.
As well in 2019, the IYL hosted an event as part of the programme of the Bologna Children’s Book Fair. Based on the books of the catalogues, Jochen Weber, head of language sections of the IYL, and Hasmig Chahinian (CNLIJ – IBBY France) took a look at trends in current Arabic-language children’s literature.
Another core component of the project was an exhibition organised by the library, which provided an insight into the work of eight renowned illustrators from five countries: Fadi Adleh, Said Baalbaki, Salah Elmur, Simar Halwany, Hanane Kai, Intelaq Mohammed Ali, Walid Taher and Hassan Zahreddine. Their pictures are representative of an illustration art of great diversity. The exhibition, which opened at the IYL in October 2019, showcased pictures from 20 books by these artists. published over the last 20 years. A total of around 100 illustrations were on display, most of them originals on loan from the artists. The exhibition was very well received and was accompanied by workshops for children and school classes.
Walid Taher Studio in Blutenburg Castle in 2019.
Egyptian illustrator Walid Taher had been invited to create works for the exhibition. As a guest of a three-month Artist-in-Residence Programme of the City of Munich, he found inspiration in the unique architecture of the Blutenburg Castle, the home of the IYL. In a separate room of the exhibition, he created an installation, ‘The House of Hide-and-Seek’, which stimulated visitors’ imagination in a playful way.
Illustrators’ exhibition poster.
The exhibition was on display in the library until March 2020. Due to the restrictions and measures taken during the Covid pandemic, the plans to have the exhibition travel to other places were massively hindered. After several months of inactivity, finally the exhibition could travel to Berlin and three other cities in Germany.
Overall, the project was a big success and has enriched the work of the IYL. There was great interest in the topic. The publications and the exhibition were valuable means to make Arabic-language children’s literature better known in Germany.
However, some problems became evident. Many libraries and schools were interested in the books and would have liked to purchase them. In Germany, however, it is still difficult to buy Arabic children’s books. Due to the lack of bookshops and the often-complicated process of getting the books from their countries of origin, the demand cannot be met.
Therefore, the IYL is glad to have succeeded in taking a further step in autumn 2022, with financial support from a cultural foundation. Schools in Germany, where the so-called ‘Herkunftssprachlicher Unterricht’ (heritage-language classes) are offered, were invited to apply for 30 book boxes, each containing 20 recommendable children’s books in Arabic. A Berlin-based Arabic bookshop had purchased the books centrally. Since more than 30 schools applied to receive a box, we hope to be able to repeat the initiative at some point in the future. In the long run, however, other ways must be found to bring more Arabic books to schools and libraries in Germany.
The IYL’s efforts to get publishers in German-speaking countries to translate Arabic books and include them in their catalogues have been less successful. There is interest and good will, but when it comes to concrete steps, publishers remain reluctant. In the coming years, more efforts have to be made to convince at least some of them.
This article was first published in Bookbird Vol. 58, No. 1, 2020 and has been updated for this issue of IBBYLink.
Illustrations © 1918, 2019, 2021 Jochen Weber.
Jochen Weber is the Head of Language Sections of the International Youth Library.