Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Remembrance of Readings Past

I was a bookish child, and spent endless hours immersed in fantastic stories, tales peopled with strange and wonderful characters getting themselves into all sorts of ill-advised but oh-so-exciting adventures. On my eighth birthday, Baba bought me a stack of stories from Dar al-Maa’ref’s venerable Awladna series, a collection that has shaped untold generations of young readers. Books in the series include translations of world classics such as Ivanhoe, Don Quixote, and Tom Sawyer; abridged Arabic classics; and generic stories of indeterminate origin such as ‘Am Ni’na’ (Uncle Mint), a charming homily about a beloved neighbourhood stationer-cum-wise man whose shop turns into an agora for the local children to mingle and learn the values of truth, honest hard work, and good citizenship.

Now, riffling through my Awladna books after so many years, I’m struck by the unmistakable Platonic thrust of the series’ founding statement, issued in March 1947: “It is no secret that the life of the mind is the firmest pillar of happiness. Our love for our children compels us to pave for them the paths to this happiness by endearing them to the good book, so that they can seek it out as youngsters and become attached to it as adults, thus building the bonds of a firm friendship that sharpens their sentiments and emotions, refines their tastes, develops their talents, and endows them with a loftiness of soul.” The project of building young minds through stories was entrusted to none other than leading Egyptian pedagogue Muhammad Farid Abu Hadid (1893-1967), Dean of the Education Institute in Cairo and himself a prolific author of historical novels and translator of major works of world literature into Arabic.

I consumed the Awladna stories in quiet corners of my parents’ and grandparents’ apartments, while the rest of the family children played and ignored me. There was one particular story that riveted me entirely, that I read over and over again to revel in its menagerie of wondrous characters and the irrepressible insouciance of its lead protagonist. Pinocchio was like nothing I’d ever read before. It had movement, suspense, and more emotional drama than I could handle. I was enthralled by the story’s talking crickets, chicks, goats, and birds, by Pinocchio’s cap made of dough, and most of all by the kindly and trusting Geppetto. I teared up at all the pain he suffered on account of his errant, ungrateful little tyke. I couldn’t understand how Pinocchio could so blithely hurt his poor old father like that.

I open the book now and the same sense of palpable foreboding washes over me, the constant sense of dread at Pinocchio’s errant ways, from the first minute when he detours from school to see the Marionette Theatre to his ignominious metamorphosis into a donkey to his being swallowed up by the asthmatic shark. But then I remember that the story has a sweet, happy ending. Pinocchio learns his lesson and changes his ways, landing gainful employment and succeeding in the studies he had neglected. As a reward, he turns into a real boy and Geppetto grows younger and returns to his craft of wood carving. And all is well with the world.

For a brief spell, school reading nourished my imagination. Like so many of my contemporaries, I grew up on the two didactic props of the Ministry of Education: the smug Omar and his silly little sister Amal. Amal struck me as pathetic and annoying, imitating everything that her older brother did.

Omar was an insufferable know-it-all who inexplicably wore a skirt to school. I didn’t like how he knew everything and she was the buffoonish tag-along; it offended my sensibility as a serious girl (quite). Still, I was fascinated by their world, and still remember quirky things from the book: their friend’s name “Nargis”, a girl’s name I’d never heard before; their class visit to the consumer cooperative, which I envied because I heard adults talking about buying this or that from al-gam’iyya, but I didn’t know what a gam’iyya was; and their trip to the village, where Omar’s equally smug friend Ashraf informs us that the white egret is “the fellah’s friend” because he eats up all the worms in the fields.

Though the Awladna stories formed the core of my reading, I had catholic tastes. I read anything I could get my hands on to fill the hours of summer ennui, including snippets of newsprint and I consumed the frilly stories of al-Maktaba al-Khadra, but the fairy tales full of princesses and princes dressed up in fussy outfits eventually bored me. I read slim volumes of scriptural stories made for children that supplied the narrative details missing in the Qur’an’s elliptical exposition. I still remember the feeling of horror at the bloodshed in the story of Qabil and Habil; the evocative detail of the notable ladies of the city distractedly slicing their hands instead of the fruit as they sat transfixed by Yusuf’s breathtaking beauty (I kept trying to imagine what he looked like); and the story of Yunus being swallowed up by the whale, which terrified me. I kept wondering how he could breathe in there.

Kamel al-Kilani’s (1897-1959) stories were fun, especially the ones adapted from Alf Layla. I didn’t know anything about the author, except that my father grew up on his stories. I didn’t know that Kilani was a lifelong clerk in the Awqaf Ministry and an avid lover of literature, and that he is now considered the pioneer of Arabic children’s literature. I just liked the alliteration in his name, and the fact that all his books contained diacritical marks, so I could pronounce the words properly. I remember the whimsical, humorous tale of the hapless ‘Umara, a story that unfolds over seven days. ‘Umara is a lazy ne’er-do-well of unbelievable stupidity. He gets kicked out of school, and then his mother threatens to kick him out of the house if he doesn’t secure gainful employment. On his quest, ‘Umara quite accidentally brings laughter to a depressed sultan’s daughter; the sultan of course rewards him handsomely, and ‘Umara marries the princess and eventually assumes the throne, “and he ruled the land with justice.”

I gradually moved on to more contemporary fare, and distinctly remember one summer being entirely taken up with detective stories. My favourite were the five adventurers, a monthly series whose utterly ridiculous premise did not in the least faze me: five upper-class kids from Maadi helping to solve knotty and dangerous crime cases, with the enthusiastic cooperation of the local police station, no less. I obsessively collected their books, visiting the newspaper stand every month to get the latest. Those of a certain age will remember that the quintet consisted of Takhtakh, the portly but really smart ringleader who had superior deductive powers; the siblings Atef and Loza and the twins Noosa and Moheb, and the beloved dog Zangar. In an utterly self-flattering manner, I identified strongly with Loza, the youngest member of the crew and the smartest after Takhtakh. She was energetic, cute, and such an excellent sleuth. Plus, she was brave. When she was kidnapped by some ruthless criminals, she weathered the experience with grit and aplomb.

This was all very attractive and convincing to me, apparently, and I whiled away the hours consuming the fast-paced, thrilling adventures of the fabulous five. They spent their summer vacations pursuing dangerous criminals and sophisticated organised gangs (gasp!), while I spent summer vacations filled with crushing boredom. They put themselves in real danger, going undercover as street children and thugs to consort with the shadowy figures of the Maadi underworld. And they amassed valuable clues simply by engaging in systematic, logical thinking (the unsubtle moral of all the stories). In their downtime, the sleuths had a love-hate relationship with the grouchy Shaweesh Ali, who found them annoying (who wouldn’t?), but they enjoyed the enthusiastic support of Inspector Sami, an influential detective who always wore dark glasses and said things like “What I admire about you is that you are bold adventurers and diligent students at the same time.” Not only that, but Takhtakh had unmediated access to Inspector Sami, often phoning him on his direct line to offer clever advice and tips.

I flip through the books of my childhood, and find that they still grip, delight, and stimulate me. They taught me the beauty of words, the magic of imagination, the virtues of concentration, and the love of all that is quirky, unlikely, astonishing.