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A Veritable Book Magician
Lebanese writer and children's book publisher Rania Zaghir
The fact that Rania Zaghir has put out 27 children’s books (since 2007!) proves just how passionate she is about reading, storytelling, children and Arabic. “To have a fantastic book, takes one year,” the award-winning Lebanese writer and publisher of children books underlined during an interview that took place on a sunny Saturday morning in Sanayeh Gardens. “For a small independent publishing house, we are doing fine,” she put forward. To distribute her books she has joined forces with NGOs to reach as many kids as possible.
One of her books, Man lahas karn el booza (Who ate my ice cream?) has been translated into 20 languages – a rare achievement for an Arabic children’s book. Even a German Premier once read the German translation to a young audience.
Her latest projects are a colourful book about Beirut and Rin Rin Ya Jaraz, a selection of stories read by local celebrities, including Paula Yacoubian, Salam el Zaatari and Wissam Dalati, among others and which was put together under the musical direction of Mike Massy. “It’s for a good cause, 50% of the proceeds go to the Brave Heart Fund and it is something to be enjoyed by the entire family for example in the car, while driving. All can be engaged in the same auditory experience,” Zaghir said. “It’s doing very well and is a good addition to the children’s music library in the Arab world.”
One of the recent awards she has received is the Berlin International Literature Festival Book Award (The Extraordinary Book 2015) for Haltabees Haltabees, the first Arabic children’s book to be on iPad. Zaghir’s creativity purposefully goes beyond the pages of her books. For the launch of Beirut she re-opened a former children’s book shop in Hamra for a week, did an installation and offered a string of activities, which included her reading to a bunch of dogs. “I’ve read to sheep before,” she added, deadpan. “They are more interactive. Dogs are too hyperactive.”
Zaghir mostly reads her books to listeners with human, non-furry or woolen ears, though. Her readings are filled with fun; she brings her books alive and like a magician, pulls her audiences into them. She does so in Lebanon and well as abroad, in kindergarten settings, schools but also libraries and centres or refugee camps, always intent on stimulating children but also adults with quirky stories. These always contain very subtle lessons and messages and gain audiences access into their inner worlds. Her “booza book” for example encourages individuality: eat your ice cream the way you like to.
She is currently working on “A book not about the letter kha”, which is about how we get ride of problems, why we accept to not get rid of them, we get into avoidance mode, which leads to delaying things and that usually makes things worse instead of seeking a solution.
To Zaghir, the act of reading is important, as is for her to develop the Arab child’s artistic and social awareness. “My books are a tool for social justice,” she maintained. Her use of language is eclectic and marvellously creative. Each publication is a firm commitment to her language and to mother tongue education. “I don’t believe that the Arabic language is in deterioration, as some people say. The public schools in the suburbs and beyond teach in Arabic. The problem lies in teaching full stop! The approach is archaic,” she lamented. “Generally the image of Arabs has been so trashed, we need to defend that. People who protest these days [garbage protests] want to contest that and they use Arabic to do so. It’s unbelievable that Tammam Salam spoke at the UN in English.”
Asked what her favourite spots, weekend escapes, cafes or restaurants in Lebanon are, Zaghir mentioned Beit Douma in the North of Lebanon, Sursock Museum, Souk el Tayeb, Sporting Club and Rawda Café in Beirut and not surprisingly, the Baakline Public Library in the Chouf, which was a prison before being turned into a public library.
To get a taste of the masterful wordsmith’s work, read this extract from her indeed extraordinary Haltabees book:
A square love, a rectangular love:
A big love
A small love
A short love
A long love
A square love
A rectangular love
The clever people’s love
The silly people’s love
But my love for you Lamis
Has neither a shape nor measures
A smooth and cute love
A love made of sesame, honey and garlic
A love has an image that I put in an Album
A love that is more beautiful than the songs of Abd El Halim and Um Kulthum
My love is a bubble that will remain and remain and remain.
Album rhymes with thoom – garlic. The following lines of the poem all rhyme with thoom as well.
Translation and explanations thanks to Ghiath al-Jebawi.