RAMALLAH, West Bank — 2018 has been a big year for Palestinian literature, with Palestinian-Jordanian author Ibrahim Nasrallah’s winning of the Arab world's top literary prize, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, for his dystopian novel “The Second War of the Dog.”
In September, Palestinian literature celebrated another victory as the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) selected the novel “Ana wa-sadiqi wa-al-himar” (“Me, My Friend and The Donkey”) by Palestinian author Mahmoud Shukair for its 2018 honor list of the top 100 children’s novels around the world. The selection was announced after the IBBY’s 36th international congress held in Athens, Greece, in the beginning of September.
Shukair is no first-time literary prize winner. In 2011, he was awarded the Mahmoud Darwish Prize for Freedom of Expression. He was also short-listed for IPAF two years ago for his adult novel, “Praise for the Women of the Family.” Shukair is the author of 45 books, six television series and four plays, some of which have been translated into English, French, German, Chinese, Mongolian and Czech. The books of the Jerusalem-born author mostly center on Palestinians’ struggle with modernity, displacement, migration and other changes brought to their lives by the volatile political atmosphere in the Middle East.
“Me, My Friend and The Donkey” is no different. It takes up the story of a Mohammad al-Salhout, a boy who transports wheat and barley on his donkey to make a living. But when his donkey is stolen, the boy leaves Palestine to go to the United States. The final chapter narrates his return to Jerusalem from Houston as a successful businessman who recalls with nostalgia both old Jerusalem and his donkey. The story is inspired by the real-life story of one of Shukair’s childhood friends and although the take is realistic, the author plays with symbolism extensively. For example, the donkey theme recurs throughout the protagonist’s life — in the poems of Mahmoud Darwish, the Day of the Donkey in Mexico and as the symbol of the Democratic Party in the United States.
Shukair told Al-Monitor, “The storyline reflects the child’s journey in the world throughout different chapters as he ends up as a successful businessman in the US.”
The city of Jerusalem, where the author currently lives after spending time in Beirut, Amman and Prague, has a real presence in the adolescent novel as the author focuses on the city’s young Arab population, their aspirations, their love for adventure and their sadness.
“Writing for this generation is tough because the writer must understand their outlook toward life, feelings, interests, weak spots and the limits of their understanding. So it’s necessary for the writer to study real children and adolescents, so he can speak their language,” Shukair told Al-Monitor.
Shukair explained to Al-Monitor that his story conveys the message that “no matter how harsh and difficult reality is, obstacles cam be overcome and success achieved,” but he that he tried to keep a light touch. “The messages should not be like sermons, they should be indirect. Humor also helps to stir the interest of the reader — makes the story more exciting and engaging,” he said, adding, “The messages are that we should learn from our negative experiences, hold on to our land and country, persevere, not give up if we get hurt, respect friendship, cooperate with our generation to produce ideas and new experiences and fight for good values to overcome evil.”
The Palestinian Ministry of Culture lauded the book’s international success. “Shukair’s fiction, which was voted among IBBY’s best novels internationally, is a great achievement for Shukair, Palestine and all its artists,” read its Sept. 11 statement. Expressing hope that the novel will be translated to other languages, it went on, “It would also help bridge gaps between Palestinian culture and world cultures.”
The novel was first published in 2016 by the Tamer Institute for Community Education, a non-profit group founded in 1989 in Jerusalem to promote education and cultural appreciation among children and young people. The organization particularly supports children’s and young people’s literature by publishing authors like Shukair, Ahlam Basharat, Sonia Nimr, Anas Abu Rahma and Huda Al-Shawa.
The organization’s director, Renad Qubbaj, told Al-Monitor, “The institute is keen to support authors with different styles and make their work available to children and young people.”
When asked about what distinguishes Shukair’s work, Qubbaj said, “The novel is very easy and enjoyable to read. With its web of adventures and humorous tone, it makes for exciting reading while indirectly educating. When the writer develops a character that forms a bond with the reader, the book becomes a success.”