Sometimes, just finding the right book makes all the difference.
When Hala Hobballah was a child in Lebanon she would look forward to bedtime, to read or be read excerpts from the animal fables – in verse and prose – of Kalilah and Dimnah.
“It was and remains one of my favourite books,” says the mother of two, now in her thirties.
She remembers there were many more and much better books written in Arabic while she was growing up, with the past two decades suffering a great decline in well-written Arabic stories and novels, before a recent revival of Arabic literature.
“I find many of the books out there now a bit silly, without much meaning or message in them,” she says.
Finding the right Arabic books for her children in libraries and book shops was a frustrating business until Mrs Hobballah discovered Maktabati (my library).
“Maktabati picks out the books for you, so that every month you get a really nice Arabic book delivered to your home that you and your children can enjoy,” says the mother of Adnan, 6 and Yasmin, 4.
“I receive books I can’t easily find in stores here, and they are quite unique and of great quality. Books in Arabic have been neglected for a long time, I am so glad there are better new ones being written and produced.”
The “book lunchbox” initiative is described as “food for the mind”, with works in Arabic by Arab writers. Maktabati was launched in October last year by Diala Arslan, a Lebanese author of children’s books.
“I kept meeting a growing number of parents who were frustrated about not finding good Arabic stories for their kids. Bookshops do not display attractive titles and parents are led to think that there are no good books written in Arabic,” says Arslan, who has two children, Adel, 13, and Omar 8.
As a private tutor in Arabic, she noticed that pupils and young Arabs were bored with the Arabic grammar and dictation assigned at school.
“But this is changing, especially when they read good stories,” Arslan says. “When I visit schools to read them my books, I notice them sitting enraptured, impatient for me to turn the pages of the book. Sometimes they ask me to reread the story.
“Their excitement about reading in Arabic is growing, when the right book is read to them.”
These observations, along with continuing national and regional discussions on how the Arabic language is struggling, were the seeds for Maktabati.
Working with authors and distributors from across the region, Arslan – who is also this year’s Arabic coordinator and spokeswoman for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature – finds the best books for the different age groups and introduces a whole generation of readers to them.
There have been several conferences and initiatives in the UAE to save and revive Arabic, such as Let’s Rise with Our Language, by the Arab Thought Foundation, which aims to enhance and promote the use of Arabic, as well as annual book fairs and reading programmes.
“The right book and the right orator or reader makes all the difference in helping a child fall in love with the Arabic language,” says Yusra Al Hashemi, general director of Iqra’a, an Arabic language centre in Dubai.
“Arabic has to remain a living language, not one tied to formal occasions or a professional atmosphere,” she says. “We want it continue to change, grow and adapt to the times and remain relevant.”
Iqra’a holds special interactive courses and workshops that teach Arabic to children and adults.
The National has reported on the poor quality of many school Arabic classes, with suggestions that this can be countered by improving the teaching techniques and overall quality of the books.
“We are working with schools to include reading classes with professional and creative Arab readers and writers to revive and inspire love for the language,” says Mrs Al Hashemi.
Arab parents in general are struggling to teach their children Arabic, she says, with some forgetting the language almost completely or feeling more comfortable speaking in English.
“Parents prefer to speak in English or French to their kids. Kids see English as ‘cool’, especially given it’s the language of social media, electronic games, TV shows, and it’s used for interactions with different nationalities in the UAE,” says Arslan.
Maktabati has an annual subscription through which children receive stories appropriate to their age, ranging from two to 14.
“When people subscribe, I send them a list of books suitable for their child’s age, and ask them to choose either eight, five or three books, according to the subscription of their choice,” she says. It costs Dh350 for eight books, Dh250 for five, and Dh120 for three.
“Maktabati chooses for kids the best that is out there. You could say we are a book consultant for kids,” she says.
Repeating common woes mentioned at book fairs and Arabic conferences, Arslan says that in the past, “we either had excellent Arabic but outdated subjects, or excellent subjects with uninteresting covers and illustrations”.
“We have better books today, but what we are missing are novels for children and young adults. We mostly have short stories with standard themes,” she says.
One of her favourites is the Sab’aaoun (Seventy) series by the late Lebanese writer, Mikhail Neaimy, which allows the reader to “sense the story” as if they can see, smell, hear and touch what the author is describing.
The autobiographical trilogy revolves around various themes and characters such as “Queen Bee”, “Story of a Zucchini” and “Under the Bed”.
“I have many titles to recommend. I read each and every book before recommending it. If I don’t do that and the book turns out to be boring or nonsense, I lose credibility and Maktabati would go down,” Arslan says.
The good news is that she sees a new wave of interest in Arabic books, with parents putting in extra effort and not relying just on schools.
“Parents have recently taken up this cause of teaching their children Arabic,” she says. “It would be really sad to lose such a beautiful language.
“It is what defines us as Arabs, it is the language of the holy Quran. Some of the most beautiful and powerful literature was written in Arabic. Besides, humanity needs variety, whether in clothes, customs or language.”
Having subscribed to Maktabati for the past three months, Mrs Hobballah has already noticed a difference in her children.
“They actually pick out the Arabic books now. They want to sit and listen to Arabic,” she says.
“I am so happy because I wanted to know and feel that Arabic can be fun too. They wait for their monthly books now.”
Readers can contact Maktabati at firstname.lastname@example.org