This is a fascinating book. Fascinating, important and inspiring, this collection of ‘amazing women’ fully deserves a place in every school.
This beautifully presented book, fully illustrated throughout, is original in both concept and style. Readers are able to learn about a number of courageous and remarkable women from ancient history to the present day. Each mini-biography is introduced by Wafa’ Tarnowska in an inviting storytelling style that instantly engages the reader. The wide variety of women included, from ancient rulers to astronauts, from writers to ice skaters, come from every possible walk of life and from different countries within the Middle East. Young readers will be able to find one among these who could act as a role model. This brilliant book does much to challenge stereotypes and would be wonderful to share in the classroom either as a book to read aloud, for research or for independent reading for pleasure. There is a helpful map of the countries and a useful glossary is included too. I found this an enjoyable and eye opening read and think this is suitable for a wide readership. An excellent example of how nonfiction is able to broaden minds and educate all ages about our global community.
Amazing Women of the Middle East by Wafa’ Tarnowska illustrations by Christelle Halal, Hoda Hadadi, Sahar Haghgoo, Estelí Meza, Margarida Esteves is published by Pikku Publishing on 20th September.
The online launch takes place at 7pm on 20th September and promises to be an enjoyable event. If you would like an invitation, you can email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wafa’ Tarnowska has generously taken time to answer my questions on the blog today and I hope you find this interview as inspiring as I did. Wafa’ deserves a place in her own book!
Interview with Wafa’ Tarnowska
AT: Your previous books have been predominantly fiction including retellings of traditional tales for children; what prompted the change to non-fiction and specifically this collection of biographies?
WT: The Me-Too movement. I wanted young people to know that Me-Too is a world movement not specific to the West, that it had started sprouting hundreds of years ago in the Middle East with heroines like Cleopatra, Zenobia, Semiramis, Nefertiti and the Queen of Sheba and that it continues to blossom in our days with women like Amal Clooney ( human rights lawyer), Nadia Murad (Nobel prize winner and activist),Dame Zaha Hadid (extraordinary architect) and Anousheh Ansari (the first Muslim woman to go to space) to name a few.
AT: There is a lyrical, storytelling quality to each of the biographies and I wonder how much of that was a natural inclination as a professional storyteller or if it was a deliberate style choice.
WT:It is definitely a result of my love and practice of storytelling. A story is 27 times more memorable than a fact and the Middle East is famous for its storytelling tradition with the hakawati (storyteller) entertaining young and old in market squares and cafes.
My personal role model is Shahrazade of the Arabian Nights who is included in my book. Anyone who entertained a man (Shahrayar) and a teenager (her sister Duniazade) for 3 years, i.e. for 1001 Nights, and kept them both interested in her stories, is worth emulating. She is a cultured woman with a dazzling imagination and a fantastic sense of humour.
AT: The women are inspiring role models who confound the traditional stereotype of the female from the Middle East. This book will do much to enlighten readers all over the world. What role do you think children’s books play in creating a bridge between cultures?
WT: Building bridges between East and West is my mission in this lifetime. And for bridges to be effective they should start at a young age. That’s why all my books are cultural bridges from the Middle East to Europe, America and the world. From Phoenician myths and legends, to Sufi tales, to the Arabian Nights, to Amazing Women of the Middle East, my books aim at opening the minds of the young to other worlds and other cultures that are part of our planet’s legacy.
The same goes with foods. When children taste hummus and olives and figs and dates, they ask questions, they want to know where theses foods come from. They might want to visit the countries that produced these foods one day.
I think the role of all educators and children’s writers is to broaden the horizons of young people to show them the beauty in diversity and the value of differences. Moving away from fear of the other, because they are different from us, into curiosity about the other, then acceptance, then love, is the journey we are all asked to take, young and old.
AT: Your own life story as a refugee from Lebanon, award winning author and speaker serves as an example of what can be achieved. Would you ever consider writing an autobiography?
WT: I have just signed a contract with Barefoot books for a story I wrote about two children living in a war zone. The story is influenced by my experience of living under the bombs as a teenager for several months in Beirut in 1975, and by an event that happened at the beginning of the Syrian war (in 2012) also involving teenagers.
It took me 45 years to be able to talk about my war experiencesbecause I was traumatised by them. That’s why I don’t watch violence or read violence, and I’ve been a vegetarian since I left Lebanon aged 19. So yes, I am starting to think of an autobiography, very much one of gratitude to the countries that opened their doors to me and my family and allowed me to blossom and become the woman I am now.
AT: Your literary work includes translations into Arabic of children’s books for the publisher Mantra Lingua. September is World Kid Lit Month, a time to celebrate world literature for children and teens, especially fiction and nonfiction translated to English from other languages. How can we as librarians, teachers and parents ensure that children in the UK are made aware of and exposed to the rich variety of stories from other countries and cultures? Do you have any advice?
WT: There should be International Book Day or week where every child is asked to look for a story that is not from the UK and share it with others during story time or geography. Children can dress up in the costumes of the countries these stories come from and bring food to share from these countries. Opening young people’s minds to diversity must be a joyful experience and not become another chore. Chores make people resentful, sharing experiences make people happy.
My “Amazing Women of the Middle East” has a map of the countries where these 25 women come from. It is to help teachers and parents situate the action of the stories. The book also has a glossary of words children might not have heard of. This is also to stimulate discussion in class or at home about a region that is usually known for war and not for inspiring role models.
AT: You are involved with the Stories in Transit project which organises storytelling workshops in the UK and in Palermo, bringing young migrant students together with artists, writers and musicians. How is this initiative helping these students and has it been able to continue during the pandemic?
WT: Like all cultural activities that depended on face to face interaction, because of the Covid19 lockdown, we have had to recalibrate and think of ways to continue our workshops virtually until travel becomes safe. We just had a virtual meeting to discuss new projects.
In the meantime, the migrant students of Palermo had started a group called Giocherenda, a word that comes from pulaar (an African language). It means “solidarity, awareness of interdependence, strength through sharing and the joy of doing things together”.
In December 2019 they opened a shop in which they sell innovativestory telling tools to help teachers and students, workshop leaders and participants, become actors and creators of fantastic worlds andcaptivating stories. If your readers are interested in these storytelling tools please take a look at this link: https://giocherenda.it/en/our-games/
AT: Will you be pursuing the nonfiction approach in the future or do you have other plans? I would love to know what to expect next.
WT: I am researching a nonfiction book for young people and writing my first book for grown-ups. During lockdown, I have recorded 8 of my stories from my“Seven Wise Princesses” and “Arabian Nights” for the Qatar Foundation Read Aloud initiative on video. If you feel like listening to a story this evening please press on this link: https://www.qfi.org/read-alouds/
My plan is to continue expanding my creativity and to be open to new opportunities as a storyteller, broadcaster, translator, and writer, worldwide.
Thank you very much Wafa’ for this enlightening and inspiring interview. I have learned much from you and from your wonderful book which I hope is read widely by children and young people and, in fact, adults too.