x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

New Arabic literature for children

Frustrated with a gap in the market, a mother of two took it upon herself to write and launch a series of Arabic books to teach children the language.

Hanzada Agha with her son, Karam, 5, and daughter, Tamar, 4. Delores Johnson / The National
Hanzada Agha with her son, Karam, 5, and daughter, Tamar, 4. Delores Johnson / The National

Hanzada Agha’s heart sinks every time she sees her children struggle to communicate with their grandparents.

She is not alone in feeling the disappointment: many Arab parents in the UAE try hard to encourage their children to proudly embrace their mother tongue in an English-dominated environment.

The desperate need to get her 4-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son to speak the language and her to desire to assist other parents in achieving that goal prompted the stay-at-home mother to turn entrepreneur and create the Karam & Tamar Arabic activity books series, which she has self-published.

“It started with a personal dilemma,” says the 29-year-old Palestinian mother who lives in Abu Dhabi.

“I realised that the grandparents could not understand what my children were saying. It was like a warning sign that this was going in the wrong direction.”

Agha tried to source teaching material in the city but met a dead end. “You have limited options in educational Arabic books and I felt even those did not match the quality of the English productions.

“My children repelled Arabic and preferred reading other books instead.

“The illustrations were not appealing and the words were very difficult to follow for a new -learner.”

Their unwillingness became a challenge and two years ago she started working on a collection of educational books that introduce Arabic to a young learner through fun group activities. The series, named after her children, was launched recently and targets different categories of learners.

A combination of flashcards, an interactive book and activity book can be used to teach Arabs, non-Arabs and children with special needs. The first book in the series introduces the Arabic letters in the form of friendly animal characters that will remain constant in the next set of books she develops.

“I worked with a Canadian-Arab illustrator and used innovative ways of introducing the letters and words, such as having them within the body of the characters because they learn through association,” says Agha.

“We wanted kids to be attracted to the characters so that when we move on to stories they will be able to identify with them and want to read. We also took into consideration international publishing standards – for example, the use of paper and print that does not reflect too much light. Children notice these things.”

She has incorporated mix and match, puzzles and wipe-clean to make the books interactive. “They are allowed to make mistakes and we guide them through the learning process,” she says.

The flashcards have an English transliteration for non-Arab learners and the activity books have play-based learning to help develop motor skills.

“There are a lot of non-Arab mothers who have to teach Arabic, because their children learn it at school, but do not know how to. This helps them.”

Agha, who is a certified applied behaviour analyst and holds a degree in holistic natural health and nutrition, says the idea was to encourage a one-to-one experience between the parent and child. “I made sure the mother or tutor has a lot to do. They have to spend time with the kids. I am against just giving a book to a child without assistance.”

She also consulted special-needs teachers to make the books appropriate for children with learning difficulties. The books were tested by her children and others before publication. “I passed them on to 8-year-old children in the UK with no background in the language and they picked it up very quickly.

“I was surprised at the number of people who are looking for a similar product. I want to support schools through this endeavour too.”

Following requests from Arabs and non-Arabs overseas, Agha plans to launch the books internationally.

“Arab families who live abroad are in constant need of finding the right tools to teach children their mother tongue and protect their language.”

She said she passed on the books to a mother in London who, on seeing good results, recommended it to other parents who then ordered the books.

“Their feedback was important because I believe they were facing the same problem of finding quality Arabic books.

“They are good for anyone who would like to learn Arabic,” she says.

“At the moment they include the translation and the phonics in English. So it is easy to know how it is pronounced and is a useful hint not only for the child [who is] learning but also the mother teaching.”

Agha is working on creating versions in French, Spanish, Dutch and Chinese.

The book series is the first project of Hanzada, an initiative that Agha hopes to expand in order to offer parents support and promote Arabic content and children’s well-being. The whole set is available for Dh250 from www.karamandtamar.com and will be available in bookshops in the near future.

aahmed@thenational.ae