Science fiction for young adults expands in the UAE
It was back in September 2009 that The National reported that teenage fiction in Arabic "doesn't exist". Publisher Dareen Charafeddine, of the Sharjah-based Arabic publishing house Kalimat, said: "If you find any [such books], they are very traditional. Nobody knows how to write for this age group. Children's literature in general isn't very developed in the Arab world."
It was due to this lack of so-called "young adult" science fiction novels in Arabic that Noura Al Noman first decided to write her own. She scoured bookshops in search of suitable books in Arabic for her daughter and found none, and so her novel Ajwan was born.
"For something to be popular, it has to first exist. If you look for English novels in the genre, you'd find plenty, and I believe it is popular - it was popular for me when I grew up in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But if you look for Arabic sci-fi then you will find that it is virtually non-existent," said Al Noman.
Ajwan is a 19-year-old girl on a journey of empowerment, who comes from a "water planet" with the ability to breathe both air and water. "Jown" is Arabic for cove or a small sea, while "Ajwan" is the plural. Having survived the destruction of her planet, Ajwan finds herself having to survive in a universe of diverse races and nations. This is harder than it first seems after Ajwan's infant son is kidnapped by a mysterious organisation, intent on conquering the sector with the help of a super-army, which wants to turn her child into a super-soldier. Ajwan realises she must learn how to find a balance between being someone from a peaceful nation and becoming a trained killer in order to save her son.
"She had to have an Arabic name," Al Noman said, "because I feel that Arab teenagers need to be proud of Arabic names and concepts. However, the rest of the characters' names are derived from many cultures and concepts in other languages."
Her new book doesn't just encourage young adults to read in Arabic, however; it creates political analogies with its plotline. With these analogies, Al Noman hopes to educate, as well as enlighten, her young audience.
"It is also about things that have been happening in this region for a couple of decades now: one man - or a group of men - who have a hidden agenda to acquire power, and they use the pain and suffering of minorities or marginalised peoples to turn them into their own private armies," she said of Ajwan.
"We know that the people being used have legitimate claims, that they are right to be angry and vengeful. However, we also know that the leaders behind them are not concerned with their well-being; they're just using them as a means to an end. The events in Ajwan revolve around those concepts, and I hope young adults will draw their own conclusions, without politicians and men of religion lecturing them about anything," she said.
The sci-fi novel is the author's third book. Qutta Qutna (Cotton the Kitten) and Kunfuth Kiwi (Kiwi the Hedgehog) were her first two children's books; both of which were inspired by her family and their interactions with animals. The touchy-feely tale of Cotton the Kitten came about after Al Noman's cousin dubbed their pure white kitten "Gitneh", meaning "cotton" in Emirati Arabic.
Kiwi the Hedgehog was written after the author's young children found a hedgehog in their garden, naming it after the fuzzy green fruit. After deciding to release the animal in a safe place, the family placed it in a cat carrier, only for it to give birth to a litter.
"Thirty-six hours after we placed it in a cat's carrier, it gave birth to five pink squirming hedgehogs. None of us had ever seen baby hedgehogs before! So I decided to write about it to contrast the theme of domestic versus wild animals," she said, adding that all proceeds of her two children's books are donated to Friends of Cancer Patients.
Unfortunately, the hedgehog the family found ate four of its babies, deciding to care for the single remaining one only. The author and her children released mother and infant into the wild six weeks later.
Al Noman said she herself fell in love with books at a very young age. "My maternal grandfather had a large library, as did my father, and I think that is why I started reading. I've nurtured that in my children as well, and started as early as two years; but people now have started reading to babies while in the womb, and why not?!
"Everyone should be a reader, and let's not wait until they can actually read for themselves, let's read for them until they cannot wait to read on their own. Readers can very quickly become writers, too," she said.
Noura Al Noman will be appearing at the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature at three different panel sessions: at Writing for the Young Adult Market on Saturday at 10am; her own session at 1.30pm, Creature Comforts; and during a final session at 6pm (Why Arabic Is So Important and How Parents Can Make a Difference).
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