Stories Told by and for Palestinian Children

Tuesday 4 May 2021 by Rania

Stories Told by and for Palestinian Children

The main topic of this presentation is the writing of stories for children. The children I am concerned with here are those between the ages of three or four up to the age of nine or 10, that is, before the age where they start to show any physical, emotional or cognitive signs of puberty.

However, I would like to start by talking about the road or experiences which led me to what I consider the insights or – you may consider – viewpoints.

These experiences consisted of three different research interests I have been involved in for the last 30 years or so, when I came to work at a Palestinian university after studying and teaching at American universities for about 15 years.

I. The first of these three lines of research began in 1978 with the collection of traditional oral Palestinian folktales. This research still continues today and has recently expanded and become quite intensive due to the recognition granted by the UNESCO in 2005 to the Palestinian folktale as one of the World Masterpieces of Intangible Heritage, which must be preserved. This came as a result of a proposal I presented to the UNESCO. The UNESCO has initiated a three-year project for the collection of the folktale, of which I am still the Academic Director.

Out of this work came a book entitled Speak Bird, Speak Again published by the University of California Press, the Arabic version of which Qul ya Tair was banned last year by the PA ministry of culture and to which I may return later.

II. The second line of research started in late 1987 shortly after the beginning of the 1st Intifada, or uprising, which later became known among Palestinians as “The children’s Intifada”, or “The Stone Intifada”. This uprising was started and maintained – at least for the first two years – primarily by children between the ages of 7 and 13 or 14.

The stone-throwing children used to engage the Israeli soldiers in a confrontation which lasted usually for a few minutes, during which some children were killed, some injured, and the rest ran away. Like many adults, I usually stood on the sidewalk at a safe distance from the confrontations and watched. After a while, I realized that the children who ran away regrouped at some distance from the soldiers and seemed to be carrying out lively discussions accompanied by a lot of laughter. Later I found out that in these sessions they were actually bragging about their or their friends’ heroism and exploits against the soldiers during the confrontations, and that they accepted each other’s stories as factual and found them highly amusing. These narratives can be formally classified by those in the field of folklore as ‘humorous contemporary legends’.

I started collecting and studying these legends a few weeks after the beginning of the Intifada. This again turned into a larger project on “Palestinian political humor” in general, which has produced two books and several articles, and is still going strong.

Going back to our main topic – children’s narratives – what I found most fascinating about Palestinian children’s intifada narratives was the similarities between the hero in these narratives and the hero in many of the folktales I had collected among Palestinians and folktales in general.

Time does not allow me here to present the two types of tales side by side in order to show the similarities. Suffice it here to mention that like the hero of the traditional oral folktale, the hero as portrayed in the children’s narratives is very young, often the youngest in the family, physically small, deformed, or handicapped and overcomes much more powerful opponents, often with assistance from a human or a supernatural agent. Another noticeable similarity is the presence of the child-hero and mother in these narratives.

Here are a few illustrations:

1. One time when the town [Gaza] was under curfew, a pregnant woman started to have labor pains. The soldiers took her to a military hospital to give birth there. It turned out that she was pregnant with twin boys. The head of one of the babies came out, he looked around and saw all these [Israeli] military uniforms, turned back to his brother and shouted, “Ahmed! Ahmed! We are surrounded, get some rocks!”.

2. A child keeps coming out of the door of a house, throwing rocks at the soldiers and running back in, and the soldiers cannot find him. Finally, a foreign news correspondent goes into the house and begs the mother to tell him how the child manages to avoid the soldiers. At first, the woman refuses to tell him. Finally, he assures her that he will not tell anybody about it, and she lifts up the edge of her long flowing dress and says, “Mahmoud, come out, habeebi [my love],” and the boy comes out from under her dress.

3. One day the Israeli soldiers arrested a child in the Ramallah market. A woman who was doing her shopping close by saw what happened. She threw herself at the soldiers, crying and screaming that her son had not done anything; he was simply walking with her while she did her shopping. She kept screaming, tugging and pulling at the boy, and a big crowd gathered around, until she succeeded in pulling the child away from the soldiers. As she was walking away holding the child’s hand, a person passing by heard her asking the child, “Whose son are you, Darling?

4. Khaled el-Iraqi, a boy from Jenin was nicknamed “El-qujjeh”, “The Piggy Bank”. He gave the Israeli authorities a lot of trouble, and the soldiers were always looking for him, and he was injured several times, but they were not able to catch him. One time he was injured and the other boys took him to the hospital, and his liver had to be taken out, but when they removed the liver they found a small liver underneath the first liver. He survived the operation, healed and went home, and within few days he was back throwing stones at the soldiers.

5. In the Alamaari refugee camp everybody is talking about a young boy 13 years of age. No one knows his real name, but his nickname is “Hoboob er-reeh”, “The Wind Storm”, and whomever you may ask about him in the refugee camp would know him because he has done many heroic deeds and he is driving the soldiers crazy. People of the camp say that Shamir [Israeli prime minister at the time] once said that he was ready to release all detainees from Amaari Refugee camp and to remove the Israeli observation tower from the camp in return for capturing “The Wind Storm”, because he does things no other person could do – for example he has already injured over one hundred soldiers, all by himself.

6. The Israeli soldiers put barbed wire around an area, as they usually do, to prevent people from going into this area. One kid named Yusif, who does gymnastic exercises, can jump high in the air, and people call him “the one who flies” (elli biteer). One day Yusif jumped over the barbed wire. The soldiers were surprised. How could he do that? They got into the jeep and followed him. Finally, they found Yusif in front of his house. When they saw him, they ran after him to catch him, but he jumped up in the air, flew away and disappeared. The soldiers started pounding at people’s doors and asking, “Where is the boy who flew into your place?” But they could not find him. In the afternoon one of the soldiers saw Yusif and recognized him. The soldiers gathered up the neighborhood boys and took away their I.D. cards and told them, “You cannot have your I.D. cards unless you capture Yusif for us.” Among the boys was one of Yusif’s brothers. Yusif’s brother ran towards him pretending that he wanted to capture him, but at the same time he was shouting, “Run, Yusif, run. The soldiers sent those kids to capture you!” After a while everyone was looking at him, but he flew away and disappeared. The kids, together with Yusif’s brother, went back to the soldiers and said, “He flew away. You saw that yourselves!” The soldiers threw their I.D. cards back to them and let them go.

7. A young man one time found himself surrounded by soldiers who were trying to capture him. He looked at them and selected the smallest one of them although very small and short himself. He picked up the small-sized soldier and threw him at another soldier and escaped fast like lightning. They tried to catch him but couldn’t, and he managed to escape.

8. There was a young boy from Khan Yunis. His name was Khalil. The soldiers were looking for him because he used to burn down the hothouses of the settlers. He had burned about 20 of them and used to raise Palestinian flags on army jeeps and on the civil administration building. He caused them a lot of trouble. One time the military governor came to their neighborhood looking for him. By chance, he saw Khalil all by himself, but he did not recognize him. He asked him, “Where is Khalil’s house?” Khalil answered, “Come with me and I’ll show you Khalil’s house.” They walked a little ways, and then Khalil told him, “Here, this is Khalil’s house.” He opened the door for him, pushed him inside the courtyard and locked the door behind him. Then he went up on the roof and started to throw stones at him. The military governor started shooting at him, but he escaped safely.

9. A young man from the village of Ithna in the Hebron district was arrested and charged with possessing firearms. During the investigation he decided to carry out a plan. He admitted to the secret servicemen that he actually had some firearms and volunteered to take them to the place where he had hidden them. He took the men to a cave in the Hebron area and entered the cave to get the weapons. They waited all day long for him to come out, but he did not come out. The soldiers blew up the cave, but there was no sign of the young man. Later they realized that the cave had another entrance at quite a distance from the first one. And they never caught the young man.

10. One time the soldiers came and occupied the school building. They raised an Israeli flag on top of the school. Then a young man climbed up to the roof, took the Israeli flag down, and placed a Palestinian flag in its place although the soldiers were all over the place. The young man said that when he came down he threw dirt in the eyes of the soldiers and God must have blinded their eyes. They did not see him, and he was able to carry out his mission and left as if nothing had happened.

III. The third line of research is recent. It came after the mid-nineties, as a result of the significant role played by children during the intifada. Starting with the last years of the intifada, more and more Palestinian writers, poets and intellectuals started to pay more and more attention to children and to write for and about them. What attracted my attention most was a number of “literary folktales”, where the authors took some of the best-known Palestinian traditional oral folktales, and modified them in such a way, supposedly, to improve them, refine them and “update” them. Such efforts are not actually new or invented by Palestinian story writers. They are best known from the second edition of the Grimm Brothers collection in 1819, and at least a couple of centuries earlier among the French and the Italians.

Comparing and contrasting all three types of stories: the traditional oral folktales, the literary fairytales, and the intifada narratives, it became clear to me that the first and the third were much more similar to each other than either of them to the second. The similarity came due to the fact that intifada narratives were invented by children and the traditional folktales have been told to children, preserved, and transmitted orally for several thousands of years. Both of them are well suited to the existential needs, worries, and mental abilities of children. Literary stories on the other hand are written by adults and seem to represent what adults want children to become, and how they want them to think and behave in order to fit properly into the modern, literate upper and middle classes of their societies. They actually seem to be written to children rather than for children, i.e., these are messages from adults to children to tell them what they want them to be in order to better serve the needs and interests of adults, rather than being written for the children to serve the children’s needs, hopes, and interests and address their existential worries, fears, and anxieties. They live in much less than perfect societies but prepare children to expect to live in a perfect society – perfect by the standards of the literate, well-to-do upper classes of the society. In other words, these messages are hypocritical and self-centered on the part of the adults.

Had our societies continued to be illiterate, tradition-oriented village societies, where tales are transmitted and told to children orally, then I would have advocated that traditional folktales should not be modified intentionally and consciously, because oral stories would evolve automatically to suit new circumstances. But since now we read to our children from books rather than tell the stories from memory, which prevents tales from evolving, then I agree that they should be modified and updated. And here is where the problem lies. The way the nervous system of our human species (Homo sapiens) is wired has not changed for over a hundred thousand years, and the traditional tales have been transmitted orally and told to children from memory for several thousand years. Thus, they have evolved in ways suitable for different cultures across time and space. But they have also evolved to suit the unchange¬able mind of the human child; they have become quite adept at catering to the universal needs of the human child everywhere. Points of coincidence with the nature of the mind of the human child have become an inherent part of the traditional oral folktale. It is these points of coincidence between the mental, emotional and developmental needs of the human child, on the one hand, and some aspects of the folktale, on the other, which should not be omitted from literary tales written for children, whether such tales are based on existing folktales or composed from scratch. The following are ten points which, I believe, qualify under this category, although I will not be able to elaborate and justify the claim I make about each point adequately in this paper.

These ten points are just a start and do not necessarily exhaust all the lessons a writer of children’s stories could learn from the traditional oral folktale:

1. A child, unlike a literary critic or any other adult, does not analyze a story logically and try to find the message behind it. A child rather lives out the story by identifying with one of its characters, usually the hero, assuming the child finds in it a character with similar existential problems and needs as him/her self.

2. As far as the child is concerned, what matters is not the moral lesson at the end; not who wins and who loses, nor fear of punishment, shame, or guilt. The child wants to feel adequate, important, loved, to have hope, to find meaning in his/her life. The issue is not a specific lesson; it is rather a general orientation to life – to humans, to the world.

3. Do not send a message to the child, rather give him/her a form, a structure which he/she can adopt or assume, which could get him/her from where he/she feels he/she is to where he/she wants to be.

4. The child perceives and understands the world in analogic rather than digital mode. Give the child images and metaphors of life and the world rather than abstract quantifications: “very, very, very big” is more understandable than “three times as big as …”

5. A child perceives and understands the world in black and white and not shades of gray. The world should be desorbed in binary divisions and polarized images. Characters have to be either very bad or very good, not a mixture of good and bad.

6. Humor and what is funny for the child consists of breaking the rules and the taboos of the adult society. A good example of such terms can be found in the banning of my book, Qul Ya Tair, in Palestine in the spring of 2007. I have a copy of the directive sent to the school administrators telling them to destroy all copies of the book found in the school libraries. The minister tries to justify his action by quoting some of the offending words and phrases which occur in the book. Among these he gives the following: “You son of a whore,” “Damn your father,” “Your cousin is a whore,” “The camel bit off his penis and testicles,” and “I will shit in this pot.” Some of the audience may be familiar with another big “controversy” which broke out in the United States at about the same time as the banning of my book in Palestine over the use of the word “scrotum” in an award winning book entitled The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. Mentioning sexual parts of the body, or body products, which is prohibited by prudish adults, is very funny to the child, simply because it is prohibited by adults, not because they understand other implications which adults do. Thus, using such “crude” terms, as story tellers from illiterate, traditional, oral societies do, to entertain and amuse children, should be deemed quite legitimate.

7. The hero of children’s stories should not start out tall, big, strong and handsome. That is not how the child feels, therefore the child cannot identify from the beginning with such a hero. A child feels powerless, overwhelmed, and oppressed by adults and older children. The child should have similar characteristics and then conquer and overpower his oppressors and take the child with him/her in a process of mastering the people and world around him/her.

8. The existential problems of the child spring from conflicts with his own parents and siblings, i.e. within his own family and not from the outside society. Many authors of literary tales try to improve and beautify folktales by moving the conflict and struggle to other members of the community outside the immediate family. That, of course, takes all the fun out of the tale for the child who cannot identify with the hero’s adventures and exploits because the child does not have any accounts to settle with people outside her own immediate family.

9. Another point related to the previous one is that it is clear to scholars of the traditional folktale that a stepmother is the bad side of the real mother. Killing the real mother and bringing in the stepmother simply hinders the child from coming to terms with the facts of life, namely, that a mother is not always kind and loving, but can get angry, even cruel and nasty. Ultimately, the child has to come to terms with that and accept the mother as is.

10. Finally, we come to illustrations. Illustrations clearly came in with literary fairytales, and like writing it is ideological and intended to brain-wash or socialize the child into the social system. Illustrations can be helpful in guiding the child’s imagination and giving him/her forms in which to project and give shape to his/her feelings and hopes and aspirations. Illustrators, however, should be careful not to restrict and inhibit the child’s imagination and impose on the child images with which the child does not feel comfortable. One way to avoid that is to make illustrations as vague and undefined as possible. Illustrations should come as close as possible to being Rorschach ink blots.

To conclude, my main point in this presentation is that the traditional folktales of the illiterate societies and stories told by children are similar to each other and that they are more suitable to the mind of a child than are literary fairytales. The work of many of those who try to modify the traditional folktales remind me of the Arabic saying, “He came to put kohl on her eyes but in the process blinded her.” So we don’t want to, instead of improving things, ruin them.

Sharif Kanaana, 31st IBBY Congress, Copenhagen, Denmark

September 2008


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