LILITH’s managing editor Naomi Danis, herself a children’s author (Walk With Me, Scholastic), spoke recently with Irrit Dweck, a New Yorker of Syrian Jewish background. Irrit completed a gender analysis of four contemporary Palestinian-Israeli children’s books as part of her master’s degree in Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures from Columbia University. In light of currents events and the solidarity expressed by Palestinian-Israelis towards Palestinians, we wanted to know more about the attitudes and values of picture books being read to young Palestinian-Israeli children.
LILITH: What spurred your interest in this literature?
Irrit Dweck: I was raised in a Zionist, Modern Orthodox community. Singing “Kahol velavan ze tseva shell” (blue and white, my colors) in kindergarten was taken for granted, like celebrating shabbat, or brushing your teeth. I learned to love and respect an Israel that was home for the Jews and only the Jews. The Arabs were the enemy. But these Arabs spoke the same language that my father spoke to express his love. These Arabs ate the same food I learned to cook from my father and mother If my family eats this food, and speaks this language, is my family of Syrian Jews bad? Or good?
I decided to study Arabic in college in order to understand. I wanted to understand, finally, all the comments made by my relatives, those curses and enthusiastic conversations surrounded by laughter. In my Arabic classes I relearned a history of Israel. Learning a language is not just about memorizing words and grammar. It’s about learning a culture. Studying Arabic forced me to explore why my professor referred to what I had learned to call Israel as “Palestine/Israel.” This led me to research the rise of nationalism and its relationship to Zionism, I realized that the Zionism and pro-Israel talk I learned in elementary and high school was only one perspective. The songs I sang in kindergarten no longer rang true. It was not only eretz sheli (my land) but was a land believed by Palestinians to have been taken from them. I wondered what Palestinian children read at school or what Palestinian Israeli children sang in their kindergarten classes.
I focused on the literature written by and for Palestinian Israelis, perceived as the “other” and at times “the enemy” by the majority Jewish population in Israel. I expected their children’s stories to contain a strong Palestinian nationalist voice. In addition, I expected a clear distinction between male and female gender roles, but I was not sure what these roles would be.
L: What people—or books—crystallized your thinking, or turned your ideas upside down along your way?
I.D.: After intensive Arabic language study at Middlebury College—where I took the required oath to speak only Arabic for the nine-week course— I studied Arabic for a year in Cairo.
After my year in Cairo, I felt comfortable enough to interview Palestinian Israeli educators and writers in Arabic. I went to Israel to collect children’s stories and met three powerful women working to change their community and the education children receive: Samira Nairuch, Wafa Zidan and Nabila Espanioli.
Samira is a writer, teacher and doctoral candidate. She is the author of Anwar, a simple yet sophisticated story about a little girl going to school for the first time. In this story females change and improve their surroundings; Samira emphasizes the importance of equal education and opportunity for girls and boys.
Samira explained that the Center for Arabic Children’s Literature in Haifa, funded by the Israeli government, publishes original Hebrew books translated into Arabic, adapted tales from 1001 Nights, and a series of original stories written by Palestinian Israelis. These are provided free to Palestinian-Israeli schools throughout the country.
Nabila Espanoli is director of the Markaz al-Tufula in Nazareth, a non-profit organization established in 1984 by a group of Palestinian-Israeli women to professionalize early childhood education. Beyond translating remarkable children’s literature from around the world, Nabila is interested in creating children’s stories specific to a Palestinian-Israeli audience and she holds writing and illustration workshops. For example, one book. Ma Ahla Aklati (How Wonderful My Food Is) centers around foods cooked by Palestinians living in Israel. The illustrations include both boys and girls to attract both.
Wafa Zidan directs Dar al-Tifl Al-Arabi in Acco, established in 1976 to raise the education level of Palestinian-Israeli children, to stress early childhood education and to pressure the government for equal rights and budgets for Palestinian Israelis. This center functions as a school, and a place to write children’s books and create new classroom activities. For example, Shagarat al-zeytoun, (The Olive Tree), written by Mariam Mar’i, is about an olive tree, a significant cultural symbol, and the production of olive oil from a tree the grandfather planted. Here again, boys and girls model gender equality and cooperation.
What I learned is that children’s literature is not only an educational tool, an art form and a way to communicate values to children, but also offers “parenting advice.”
L: Do you think these books will be able to keep ahead of the adult disappointment and cynicism in the peace process?
LD.: I only hope that books will give the children strength and courage. Nabila Espanoli published I’bad al-Shams, Hahamanit, (The Sunflower), a story from Zimbabwe by Gill Bond that was translated into Arabic and Hebrew. One page features Hebrew above and Arabic below and the following page has the opposite, conveying a sense of equality and respect for both languages and peoples. Perhaps reading the same stories in their own language brings respect to each and greater common ground.