Why One Mom Wrote A Book To Change How Her Daughter Sees Herself

Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Farrell and Reem Makhoul.
A page from "The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination" that reads, "Today, Sheherazade didn't hear the rumble of a subway train under her feet and pretend it was a dragon running after her."
Zada, 5 years old: "What is haraam?" (“forbidden” in Arabic)

Dada (her father): "Like when Dada says, 'Sheherazade, stop that!' and Mama says, 'Yimma, yimma, yimma, mamnooah."

Zada: "How do you know? You don't speak Arabic."

Dada: "I speak some Arabic."

Zada: "Not much."

So goes the verbal musings of Sheherazade, Zada for short, a typically bouncy 5-year-old girl who’s navigating the complexity of Palestinian-Irish-British heritage while growing up in New York City. She happens to exist in real life (i.e., at home in New York), but also in the pages of The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination, a new Arabic-language children’s book written and published by her parents, journalists Reem Makhoul and Stephen Farrell.

The pair created their small publishing house, Ossass, the Arabic word for stories, to help children like their own daughters learn Arabic — particularly those from families of the Middle Eastern diaspora now spread all over the world. Most of the books currently published in Arabic are written in fussha, the formal form of Modern Standard Arabic, which can be difficult for them to relate to.

"It’s like Shakespearean English," Makhoul explains.
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I want my daughter to be able to know the language that I speak. It represents her roots and where she comes from.

Reem Makhoul
The authors’ first book is written in colloquial Arabic in the Shami dialect, which is spoken in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan. Since Makhoul is from a Palestinian family and grew up in a small village in Galilee, not too far from Israel’s border with Lebanon, that’s the language she was raised with. She and Farrell, a reporter originally from the U.K., met nearby during the war in 2006. "50 yards from the border, with the rockets and shells going over our heads," Farrell recalls.

Zada, the oldest of the daughters, takes her name from a statue in Baghdad of Sheherazade, the mythical narrator of the Arabic classic One Thousand and One Nights. And she clearly has an imagination that reflects her multicultural upbringing. For Halloween, her costume was a mix of Queen Sheherazade and My Little Pony’s Rainbow Dash. "She's definitely a New Yorker," says her dad.
In the journalists’ illustrated story, the young Arab girl Sheherazade is living in New York City and awakes one day to find that she has suddenly lost her imagination. “The word khayal, which we used in the book, has two meanings in Arabic — shadow and imagination,” Makhoul said. “And there was a deliberate word game in the book.” The story comes to life with the artwork of Lebanese illustrator Fouad Mezher, whom the couple has still never met in person — a wonder of the digital age, Farrell notes.

Refinery29 talked to Makhoul and Farrell about their project, their hopes to publish more books in other Arabic dialects — and how they’re teaching their daughter to celebrate her heritage.
Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Farrell and Reem Makhoul.
Sheherazade reads the book her parents wrote about and for her.
How did the idea for this book come about and why did you want to write it?
Reem: "The idea really started when I was a kid myself, I was reading books in Arabic and I couldn’t really relate to books. We are trying to write stories that appeal to children’s imaginations and stimulate their love for language.

"The story is really based on our daughter. She says all these clever things. And we are journalists, so we write down everything she says. We thought that we should turn them into stories. We used her words and her character in our book."

What are your thoughts about the fact that your book is being published at a time of Arab backlash in America?
Reem: "There is nothing political about the book. It’s really a personal project that I started because I am Palestinian and my first language is Arabic and I want her to be able to speak Arabic back to me. This is the idea behind it.

"I want my daughter to be able to know the language that I speak. It represents her roots and where she comes from. When she goes back to visit my parents, who are still in the Galilee, I want her to be able to communicate with them in Arabic. It’s a project that existed in my mind and heart 15 years ago and there has always been a need for [children’s books in conversational Arabic]. It’s being done now because I want my daughter to learn it."
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For Halloween, her costume was a mix of Queen Sheherazade and My Little Pony’s Rainbow Dash. 'She's definitely a New Yorker,' says her dad.

How has the book been received? In two months, it’s been sold in cities in the U.S., Europe and the Middle East.
Reem: "They have a copy of our book in the Arab American National Museum in [Dearborn], Michigan. It has been very positive and we are getting very exciting reactions about it. We are bringing something new. We want a new alternative on the bookshelves for Arabic literature and children’s books."

Are you hoping to do other dialects in future books?
Reem: "It’s a new project. The idea and the dream would be to have the book and more books in as many dialects as possible. The second book is going to be called Where Shall I Hide? It is about Sheherazade in New York City, looking for the perfect hiding place. It will focus a lot on shapes and sizes. We already wrote it."

Stephen: "We’d love to bring it out in the Egyptian dialect or in a dialect spoken in the Gulf. At then in later books, we could bring Sheherazade back to her grandparents. At some point, we are going to have to address that there is a baby sister there, which should be great fun."

Can you talk a little more about raising a multicultural child?
Stephen: "We both come from very different backgrounds. I’m of Irish heritage, but I was born in London. So, I’m actually used to growing up being a not-quite-English boy growing up in England. But then, when I go back to parents’ roots in Ireland, I am definitely not quite the Irish boy back in Ireland. I definitely look at my daughters and say, ‘This is going to be an interesting journey.'

"Reem speaks Arabic to our daughters. I speak English and some Arabic. But in about two or three years, when our other daughter is verbal, they are going to be speaking English to each other, so that is going to skew very much the balance of Arabic and English that Sheherazade hears. We are going to have to think about how she holds onto her language for cultural reasons and for professional reasons. Arabic is a fantastically useful language to have."
Photo: Courtesy of Stephen Farrell and Reem Makhoul.
The cover of "The Girl Who Lost Her Imagination" by Reem Makhoul and Stephen Farrell, with illustrations by Fouad Mezher. The text on the bottom says: "In the Shami dialect."
Are these books helping you learn Arabic too, Stephen?
Stephen: "I’ve been slowly learning Arabic for years, trying to do it between stories written all over the world. In New York, I go to three or four lessons a week. Certainly in writing this book, I was drumming the same words into my head over and over and over again. Whereas before, a lot of the words I had known might be weapons systems and things like that from war. Now, I am learning the words for the colors of the rainbow and normal, ordinary, everyday loving things. It’s great."

Arabic aside, there is also a language difference between British English, which you use, Stephen, and American English. How does that play out at home?
Stephen: "When (Sheherazade) started saying her alphabet, she would say, 'A, B, C, D...X, Y, and zee, but Dada says zed,’ the way the British pronounce Z."

So what does Sheharazade think about the book?
Reem: "She brings it to her class and she says this is a book about me. She is really very proud of it."

Editor's note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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