Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 1 June 2020

How a YouTube channel can teach Arabic to a new generation

A grandmother is launching a YouTube channel on which she'll read Arabic-language books to children. We meet 'Tata Aida', a UAE-based writer who wants youngsters to embrace their natural language.
Aida Kassissieh reads children’s stories in Arabic to her grandchildren, from left, Edward, 2, Sienna, 6, and George, 2. She has also launched a YouTube channel for children. Pawan Singh / The National.
Aida Kassissieh reads children’s stories in Arabic to her grandchildren, from left, Edward, 2, Sienna, 6, and George, 2. She has also launched a YouTube channel for children. Pawan Singh / The National.

Aida Snobar Kassissieh’s enthusiasm about the Arabic language inspired her to take an active role in a transformation that she’d really like to see. 

“I feel really sad when I see young Arabs speaking in English. Sometimes they even use words that would never be acceptable if spoken in Arabic,” she says. “What upsets me [even] more is that parents sometimes neglect the issue and even make their children feel proud that they can speak English, that they reached the sky.”

She recalls reading Amin Maalouf’s book Murderous Identities (translated into English as In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong), which was published in 1998 and discusses the identity crisis which Arabs have been experiencing since colonialism, due to continuous contact with western culture and values. 

“This book had a great impact on me. It made me stop talking to my children in English and start speaking only in Arabic when I’m around them.” 

Kassissieh would sit down with her grandchildren in front of the television to encourage them to watch shows in Arabic even if it was Barnie and Dora the Explorer in translation. “I also made sure that my grandchildren spoke good Arabic, even classical Arabic and not just the dialect.

“I even speak with them in classical Arabic at home sometimes, why not?” she says. “People seem impressed when they hear them saying words in classical Arabic that aren’t being used anymore.”

Continuing this mission, her latest project is a YouTube channel on which she will read Arabic books to children. 

Speaking about what motivates her, Kassissieh says that during family visits to Amman, Jordan, she would read stories to her nieces in Arabic to encourage them to use the language.

The girls loved her stories, she says, and kept asking their mother to take them to “Tata Aida” (Granny Aida) so they could hear her reading more stories to them. Eventually her sister suggested that she start recording stories for them to listen to when she was away.

“When I came back to Abu Dhabi, I asked my son to take videos of me reading stories for them, but he suggested that I do it for everyone, and with the help of a professional company.”

However, the process was not without obstacles and Kassissieh found her big idea frustrated by copyright procedures and permissions. “Publishing houses liked the idea,” she says, “and were collaborative, but they asked me to wait ... But I was so excited that I decided to write my own stories instead of waiting to get permissions.

“I chose the name of the book first, The People of the Moon are Planting Carrots (which rhymes in Arabic) and my 6-year-old granddaughter liked the name. She said ‘Tata, it’s very nice.’ 

“After the catchy title I had to come up with a catchy story as well,” she says, laughing. “I started writing and reading for my granddaughter, to my husband, and to the rest of the family, who helped me to polish ideas and improve the storyline. When I finished the book, they all loved it.”

She chose to work with the illustrator Mohammed Ali and set about making sure the books were ready to present at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair last month.

“By that time, I had already started a YouTube channel, and Facebook and Instagram [pages] under the name Tata Aida, since this is my nickname in the family, and made sure to reserve the name in all social media networks in case I became famous.” 

Kassissieh is now developing the content of her new YouTube channel and putting the finishing touches to her second and third children’s books. She is also determined to get permission to read children’s books by other authors.  

‘Tata Aida’ describes herself as an edutainer whose goal is to encourage children to love and learn Arabic using social media as a platform. She also visits schools to read to children in Arabic. “I want children to love the language, to like to use it when they speak, to be proud of it,” says Kassissieh.

An avid reader her whole life, Kassissieh has long enjoyed belonging to local book clubs. When she joined an English-language book group in the early 1980s, she remembers being struck by the fact that she – and the Arab women in the group – did not know enough about regional writers. She established her own book club, “The Elite Ladies”, in Abu Dhabi in 1984, which grew in membership from eight women to 12 and which only read books in Arabic, meeting at her house twice a month. She’s also a member of Al Multaqa, a longstanding club that brings Arab writers and thinkers to its popular literary salon at Abu Dhabi International Book Fair each year.  

Kassissieh is herself full of energy, with a great willingness to contribute more to the Arab literary scene.

“The sky is the limit,” she says, with a smile.

Ayesha Almazroui is an opinion writer at The National.

Updated: May 19, 2016 04:00 AM

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