Review and Translated Excerpt of the Middle-grade Novel: ‘When Black Laughs’

Review and Translated Excerpt of the Middle-grade Novel: ‘When Black Laughs’

Review and Translated Excerpt of the Middle-grade Novel: ‘When Black Laughs’
BY MLYNXQUALEY on FEBRUARY 8, 2018 • ( 0 )
Syrian author Muhannad Al-Aqous’s The Green Braids is shortlisted for this year’s Sheikh Zayed Book Award in the Children’s Literature category. Hend Saeed looks at his earlier middle-grade novel, When Black Laughs:

By Hend Saeed

Muhannad al-Aqous is a Syrian author of children’s stories with poetic and colorful language. Most of his stories are about children who faces challenges in life, such as the Sheikh Zayed Book Award-longlisted The Green Braids, a story about a young girl with cancer. His stories unfold in a simple yet powerful way, teaching us about those children’s challenges. The same is true of his middle-grade novel, When Black Laughs.

In When Black Laughs, we immediately notice the importance of the language of colors, which starts with the title and continues throughout the book:

My dad says, “Black is the master of the colors, and he is, like White, a beautiful emptiness, and it’s we who fill it in. I had to be worthy of Black, as Black was not laughing like Green, nor smiling with Yellow; not as angry as Red nor surrendering, like Blue. This is a kingdom unknown to many, a kingdom looking for worthy king to control it.”

At the center of the book is the story of Nooraddeen, who is partially blind and loves colors and math, but doesn’t like it when people tease him about his thick classes and call him “four eyes,” nor when children laugh at him in class when he can’t see the blackboard and falls over when he walks toward it. Yet he walks back with pride after he manages to solve a math problem. Nooradeen is frightened by his daily nightmare, where the geometric shapes attacks his green eyes, and he has no power to defend himself, apart from reciting Um Issa charms.

But after he hits the ball with his head, and scores the winning goal at a football match, he goes blind. His nightmare stops, but now he faces a life with darkness. The family goes into shock and his parents don’t know how to react or what to do, burying themselves in their sadness, with his dad spending most of his time in his workshop, sad, while his mother fights her tears and his brother feels lost.

As for Nooraddeen, he refuses to do anything and stays in bed. What makes it worse is the sympathetic messages he gets from his friends and family who visit him; words that penetrate him like knives cutting into his soul.

That is, until Mr. Issam, the school counselor, and his daughter Noor visited Nooraddeen and encourage him to go back to school and find new ways to achieve his goals. Noor visits Nooraddeen every day, helping him with his homework, and life starts coming back into his house when he returns to school. His brother becomes his guardian and his dad creates a caricature based on Nooraddeen, which latter turns into a cartoon.

The novel starts with Nooraldeen around the age of 9 or 10, and it continues until he’s high-school-aged, and then takes us quickly and briefly from that time till he becomes a father. As a young adult novel, I think it overreaches the time important for this group, but his second part of life could be a good novel.

The novel talks about the challenges that face people with special needs, and how what we say to them can sometimes destroy their soul. It is about determination, the support of one’s family, and of other people in the community.

Throughout the novel, we can feel the strong bonds between the parents and their children. There is a relaxed atmosphere where they tell jokes and laugh together, and a glimpse of first love between Nooraldden and Noor.

I enjoyed reading the book and loved the opening scene with its imaginative language. I am fan of children’s and young adult books that have indirect messages, like this one. The book is suitable for children between the ages of 10-14 years, the age when they need to understand the challenges of people with disabilities.

I think the book should be translated, as it is a universal story that can happen anywhere in the world, as the struggle and the challenges, as well as the family love and support, are almost the same everywhere, so it will be understood by any child who read it in any language.

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an excerpt from When Black Laughs

The night before the catastrophe

by Muhannad al-Aqous, translated by Hend Saeed with M Lynx Qualey

A ball of light swam in space like a bright planet, dancing across the theatre of the horizon, surrounded by its silent audience of colorful planets. It was like a magnet of light, attracting thousands of stars.

The ball swallowed everything until it grew to the size of a giant beast, then rolled like a snowball in its steady orbit, moving toward its inevitable destiny.

It came out of the darkness, speeding train-like up and down, ignoring the rules of the road. It was the stupid blind comet without crutches, so how could it go out alone in the night mazes?

I screamed, alerting the ball: “Beware, you’ll hit the comet!” But no one could see me or hear my voice, as the space before the explosion was like a forest of blindness and deafness.

It doesn’t matter who hit who. Here, there were no traffic cops or courts to punish the guilty. But the explosion of the ball and light was very loud.

Lights came from all directions, and I thought: Is this a New Year’s celebration? But Santa hadn’t come nor had the gifts shown up.

The shrapnel scattered its different shiny, geometric shapes: triangles, squares, parallelograms, circles, and rectangles. And while they had different degrees, they all united to execute an urgent mission.

I was lying on the bed in front of the window as I witnessed a universal war. As I breathed in and out, my chest turned to a pressure cooker.

I opened my eyes from the dream to reality, but I was unable to move.

I was lying like a corpse, my open eyes watching what was happening through the window, as the geometric shapes laughed like children on a swing. It was a tsunami of scary laughs, and I was on the beach, not knowing how to escape.

Had the Color War started? But each war has two sides or more, so who was the enemy? Was it the war of color against color?

I heard colors competing to rule the spring, but how could brothers – all from one source – fight each other?

Oh, rainbow, you have become an orphan! Here, your colors are leaving you naked to face the wind. How can we see you after today, without a colorful dress covering your thin body?

Or maybe it was the war between the geometric shapes! I read that the reason behind the “Third World” was poverty, so perhaps 180 degrees was not enough for the triangle, and he tried to steal 360 from the circle, and maybe some of the geometric shapes would form alliance to overthrow the squares and parallelograms from ruling the world of geometry. Has space been infected by the civil and sectarian wars?

But the scene has destroyed all my assumptions. The colored geometric shapes look like an organized army. Is earth going to face a colorful geometric invasion?

Slowly, I recognized that the attack was against me, and I saw myself part of an unequal battle, and me with no weapons apart from my Um Issa charms.

I started reading the charms quickly:

Oh colors, Oh colors

Your shadow is made of seven colors

Be in the artist’s paint

Don’t harm a child in pain

But the geometric shapes didn’t believe in Um Issa charms, so they continued their skyrocketing attack.

I covered my face with my two small palms and screamed for help, but these geometric shapes penetrated the window and passed through my hands, to invade my green eyes, like a hungry grasshopper invading a farm of green.

Like someone who’d escaped a car accident, I sat on my bed, breathing heavily. The raindrops tapped on the room’s ceiling in harmony, and the wooden door opened, its hinges making a noise like my dad’s snoring. My mother entered the room to fill it with tranquil oxygen.

She hurried to hug me, and I felt the earth regain its balance.

My mother’s voice was like the sound of minaret in a mosque and bells in a church, and her lap made peace like the mosque or churchyard.

-“Is it the same nightmare, Nouraddeen?”

-“Yes, Mother. Why do the colors attack me? What makes them invade my eyes? I’m tired of them, and I want them out of my life for good.”

-“Even the shapes love your beautiful eyes, my darling. But don’t worry, it’s just a dream.”

-“But it’s the same nightmare every day.”

-“You’re very sensitive, my young ox, and you look for meaning in everything.”

-“Ox?”

-“Didn’t you ask me to discover your star sign? We were both born in April, and our star sign is the Ox. Do you want to fight with me, with your two horns?” Mother laughed.

-“But I am a weak lamb in these nightmare wars, not a scary ox. What’s an ox like?”

“Patient like a camel, sensitive like a lovebird, talented like a butterfly, and loved by everyone like the smell of the flower.”

-“Okay, butterfly, fly to your husband.”

Mother laughed. “And the ox is naughty like you. Try to sleep.”

My mother left the room and I stayed alone with the rain.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translatore, life consultant, and book reviewer.

Review and Translated Excerpt: Eman Al Yousuf’s ‘Guardian of the Sun’

Review and Translated Excerpt: Eman Al Yousuf’s ‘Guardian of the Sun’

 

Review and Translated Excerpt: Eman Al Yousuf’s ‘Guardian of the Sun’
BY MLYNXQUALEY on JANUARY 30, 2018 • ( 4 )
Emirati author and columnist Eman Al Yousuf has published two short-story collections and two novels, the latter of which, Guardian of the Sun, was co-winner of first prize at the 2016 Emirates Novel Awards in 2016. A review and an excerpt:

Guardian of the Sun: The Wish for Survival
By Hend Saeed

Emirati writer Eman Al Yousuf’s Guardian of the Sun was co-winner of the 2016 Emirati Novel Award, which she shared with author Saeed Al Badi for his Cities and Women.

Al Yousuf has penned six books, both fiction and nonfiction, and she also writes a weekly column in Al Roeya newspaper. This novel was written under the mentorship of acclaimed Lebanese novelist Najwa Barakat, as part of the Dubai International Writing Program.

Guardian of the Sun is a story of a city and its people — Mosul and Mosulis — a city that has lost much of its historical, religious, and beautiful architecture, as well as much of its people and spirit.

The author takes us on a journey inside the city of Mosul, climbing the one hundred and eighty steps of the Nabi Younis Mosque. As the central character Hussein Mansour describes it, the heart will beat and the knees will bend one hundred and eighty times before the visitor’s sins are washed away.

In the book, we take a trip around Mosul’s bridges and hear stories about its history from the grieving Hajj Hussein, from the community leader Abu Thamer, and from the young Yahya and Malika. We also travel to look for Hussein’s missing wife, Dilja.

While Hussein Mansour is the main character, each plays a big role in shaping the lives of the others, and each places their hopes in “the land,” which represents home, the lost country, the lost people, and the ultimate dream.

‘No Son No Luck’

Hussein Mansour, or Haji Hussein, was “No Son No Luck,” as his mother said. He was born the ninth child, after the previous eight had all died as babies. He survived after his mother cheated the night visitor by keeping him hungry all night, the light of death in his eyes.

Hajj Hussein works at Nabi Younis Mosque — a job his father chose for him, but which also provides respect as he walks around with his amber beads in his hands, dressed like a hajj. He lives in a small dark room beside the mosque and starts his day with sunset and ends with sunrise.

He was happy once, when he met and married Dijla, but she left home one day and never came back.

Now, Hussien saves money to achieve his dream, which is to own a land and grow sunflowers, a dream from his childhood when he used to visit the land with his father, and his father taught him about sunflowers. The dream is so important that, when his brother Yassin tells him their mother needs surgery and they’ll need money, he doesn’t offer to help with the expenses. Instead, his brother has to borrow the money from Abu Thamer. And while Hussein is tortured about this, the land is more important to him.

It seems to him that God punishes him for this choice, as an old lady comes with news about his wife Dijla, which re-opens his wounds as well as his hopes of finding her.

Dreams and danger

Yassin, Hussein’s younger brother, struggles to provide for his family and take care of their sick mother. He works in a taxi and drives Abu Thamer between Mosul and Baghdad – a dangerous trip that his wife is not happy about. But Abu Thamer jokes about the danger of these trips. Yassin doesn’t think it’s a joke: every time he takes this trip, he says his goodbye to his children and hugs them for long time. All the way, he thinks about how they’ll tell his family about his death.

Abu Thamer, who is Dean of the College of Mass Media, is passionate about his city and proudly takes his young nephew Yahya and his wife Malika on a tour of the city when they visit Mosul for the first time.

Yahya and Malika are newlyweds who came to Mosul to help them start their new life. Malika, who was preparing her Master’s in Islamic architecture, takes the reader around the city, discovering all the historical places in detail, from Nabi Younis Mosque to the al-Hadba’ Minaret.

Um Jawad, meanwhile, moved to Mosul with her husband for a better life. She lives there now with one son and two daughters, as her eldest son never came back from the Iraq-Iran war, and her husband died the same day they captured Saddam Hussien in 2013. Um Jawad and her family live on Yahya’s father’s land, but she believes it’s her land left by her husband — even though she doesn’t have any documents to prove it. She and her eldest daughter work as tailors while her son sells vegetables in the market. They live a simple life as they wait for her son Jawad to come back and get married.

There are many sharply realized moments, as when Yassin follows his young son to the roof and tries to take a photo of him with the beautiful Mosuli houses and the Nabi Younis Mosque in the background – and then the photo has no background, as a loud explosion destroys it. There is the moment that Hussein finds out that Um Jawad has left the land, after she was threatened by the gang he hired to buy the land from Yahya and Malika, who want to sell the land to start their new life.

In the end, everyone loses, even the people who have sold their souls to achieve their goals. Yahya and Malika have to leave the country, and Yassin has to pay his debt. Hussein loses his money to the gang. And Um Jawad, who fights them all, loses her battle after the gang kidnaps her young daughter for hours and threatens that next time, they will not bring her back. So Um Jawad leaves the land, the only thing she had in her life.

All the characters – Hussein Mansour, Yahya and Malika, Yassin and Abu Thamer and those at the mosque – are basically good people with good intentions. Everyone wants to achieve their dreams, and they think land is the solution, yet they all lose at the end.

Still, they survive, and the book does leave open hope for their survival.

Guardian of the Sun: Chapter 1

Photo credit: Sawad Hussain.
Translated by Hend Saeed, with editing by M Lynx Qualey

“Let me sow the seeds of the sun, until a new day is born!”

So said Hussein Mansour, who dreamed of a small piece of land in a country his son couldn’t remember — even if this land were a piece of the grave. He stood amongst a line of palms, in the middle of what was once farmland, from Mosul to the whole of Iraq. Life. Now, it was stripped bare, and his shadow embraced the sand and gravel, the clay of the first creation. The light was birthing sunflowers, gold woven from a miraculous mirage, surrounded by a group of children his mother called for every dawn. Things were confused in her exhausted mind, and sometimes she called to his brother or one of the eight sons who’d been buried, still nameless, in the dirt.

Here, the last of the Mosuli land was filled with fragments of hope. Its womb was full of fresh possibilities, ready for the harvest, even after the investment in nearby houses and residential buildings, after the land all around had suffered from overcrowding and drought and neglect.

“Mr. Hussein? In the name of the prophet Yunus, I thought you’d come today.”

“Hello, Abu Zanoun.”

“Over in the east, there were olives. Here, barley and wheat…and further down, the finest fruit.” Abu Zanoun tipped his head regretfully. “This is the land as it is now. Do you still want to buy it? Can you tell me what you’re going to do with it?” Abu Zanoun spun his arm and hand in wonder.

Hussein Mansour, shoulders hunched, walked behind Abu Zanoun’s wide shoulders. Every time they met for a heavy lunch, Abu Zanoun would mention the land, in his simple yet sarcastic way, describing it as though he were talking about a cheap pet, which could be sold for a few dinars to make him happy.

Abu Zanoun thought he knew the land well. Yet, like the people who’d left or immigrated, he felt it had no value now, as the land could neither be sold nor sown. It looked like a large cemetery, full of corpses to step around as he gazed at the sky with a questioning heart and lost gaze. It was a land that had forgotten its clay was mixed with the spirits of a goddess.

“Praise God for his blessings, and bless the soup and prophet Yunus,” Abu Zanoun said, while using his right hand to brush the food out of his beard. As always, he asked about the goings-on in the mosque, blaming the Agha for being busy in his new position, and for forgetting their fathers’ and grandfathers’ sacred mission. Then back again to the land — to handing it over for a few dinars, sentencing its soil to be suffocated under the clinging weight of bricks, which filled his silent guest with nausea.

Hussein felt humiliated and miserable. Abu Zanoun was making fun of his dream — a dream of which he was still persuading himself — and Abu Zanoun had promised to help him, in exchange for a commission.

Hussein walked one street over, to get a ride to the mosque. The road was full of dangerous holes, and heavy traffic came down the sandy side streets, while traffic lights stood amidst the black exhaust. The drivers began to shout at him: “Mister! Mister!” and he chose one of them at random.

The driver complained. They all looked alike — the same face, the same loud voice. Even their coughing and grumbling was the same. They substituted a kh for the r sound as they spoke, joining themselves in language as in life’s burdens.

Hussein’s thoughts went to the amber beads between his fingers. In all his life, they’d been the most valuable gift he’d ever gotten. And since he’d received them, he’d held them between his fingers as a drowning man clutches a hunk of wood, seeking safety each time a bead dropped onto his warm palm: tick, tick.

That sound, he’d thought, was the best medicine for giving up smoking, as he’d sworn to Alaa’ and Abu Ahmed. And yet it wasn’t — he’d gone back to his addiction after four long years.

He wished the situation could change easily, that it could be like the sun’s golden sheen grazing the frozen raindrops. As he took the cigarette box from his pocket, he still felt the heaviness in his throat, which was filled with Abu Zanoun’s poisonous words.

He opened the box to find one single cigarette lying quietly at the bottom. He had carefully prepared it this morning. Now, he hesitated, then returned the box to his pocket after deciding he would postpone its burning for another few minutes, until he met with Alaa’. He put his hand over his chest, which was burning from the smoke, and from a larger fire—one that could only be burned out by yet another fire.

Also read: Emirati Author Eman Al Yousuf on Writing While Female

Eman Al Yousuf is a chemical engineer and a certified coach in graphology, as well as an Emirati writer and has published two short-story collections and two novels, the second of which was co-winner of the Emirates Novel Award in 2016. She has published a book of literary interviews with Emirati writers, Bread or Ink, and she writes a weekly column in both Al Roeya and Al Bayan newspapers.

Hend Saeed loves books and has a special interest in Arabic literature. She had published a collection of short stories and recently started “Arabic Literature in English – Australia.” She is also a translatore, life consultant, and book reviewer.

Saudi Writer Badryah al-Bishr: Be the Action, Not the Reaction

Badryah al-Bishr is a Saudi writer whose last novel Love Stories on Al-Asha Street was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2014. Through her fiction, newspaper articles, and television programme (Badryah on MBC), she explores the position of Saudi as well as Arab women as a whole in contemporary society. Her views have generated much controversy, as though she is poised and elegant, she does not mince her words. Hend Saeed of the Dubai International Writers’ Centre – which ran a reading and discussion group session on Al-Bishr’s novel in the lead-up to the festival – moderated the session.

Saudi Writer Badryah al-Bishr: Be the Action, Not the Reaction