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Monday, October 8, 2012

The World Beyond Persepolis

Recently I have read three books, one novel and two graphic novels, all about life in the Middle East.  I am certainly not an expert on any aspect of life in the Middle East and am still learning a lot about the culture, language, and religion of places like Palestine, Iraq, and the United Arab Emirates.  Here are some books that help teach some of those cultural aspects and provide interesting stories besides.  Fair warning, though, the last two would be more useful for college teaching than middle school or high school.

Most recently I read Samir and Yonatan by Daniella Carmi.  This book, published in 2000, won the ALA's Batchelder Award for excellent children's literature translated into English from another language.


This book concerns a Palestinian kid who injures his knee while he is goofing around with his friends (and trying to be as brave as his deceased older brother).  His knee is shattered so completely that he has to go to an Israeli hospital to have it operated on.  There he meets a collection of Israeli kids, including Yonatan,  who spends much of his time reading books about science.  The two of them develop an unlikely friendship and learn a great deal about each other's lives.

It is a good book, though the ending is fairly unsatisfying.  It doesn't make the mistake of trying to resolve the entire Israeli/Palestinian conflict on the back of one friendship, nor does it take sides in the conflict.  It might be an interesting book to complement a unit on the modern Middle East, or to connect to as student of Palestinian or Israeli heritage.  I con't imagine any kid getting wildly enthusiastic about this book though.

Zahra's Paradise, by Amir and Khalil, is the amazing story of a familiy's fight to find a son who disappeared during a protest in Iran.  They fight against the bureacracy of a corrupt government in an attempt to locate their son and get the government to admit what happened to him.  Along the way, the victim's older brother comes across what turns out to be a far larger conspiricy and a far greater injustice than they had ever imagined.

This would be an excellent graphic novel for high school students to discover the depth of human rights violations and injustices that go on every day in courtries all over the world -- except, there is a fair amount of objectionable material here.  Vulgar langauge, depictions of violence, and several scenes of nudity would make it hard for many high school students to catch the point of the book -- though some parts toward the end are breathtaking in the way they call for change. 

I can think of some high school students who would get a lot out of this book, but I can also think of many (if not all) schools where recommending such a book to a student might get a good teacher fired.  Too bad, because it is a good book.

Craig Thompson is, of course, the creator of Blankets which was an amazing graphic novel about a boy's struggle to find love and purpose and an understanding of God in the midst of an extreme fundamentalist Christian family.  That was also a graphic novel that I thought would be excellent for students to study, but it had a couple of scenes that involved nudity.  I always figured that maybe Thompson's next graphic novel would have an intriguing story like the first on, but might be something that coiuld be used in a high school literature class.

If that is what I was looking for, Habibi is not it.   It is an amazing story that weaves together stories from the Bible, the Koran, 1,001 Arabian Nights, and other sources.  It tells of a woman named Dodola who is sold into slavery, stolen from her owner, and eventually escapes her new captors along with a homeless boy named Zam..  They two of them endure endless hardships and a life which seems to get worse and worse.  Dodola must sell her body to get food for them.  Zam tries to carry water to earn money so that Dodola will not have to work in this way.  He is eventually lost in the city and falls under the care of eunichs, while Dodola is captured for a sultan's harem.  Zam mutilates himself.  Dodola is harshly abused by the sultan when she tries to escape and she almost dies when the Sultan's guards try to drown her in a polluted river.  The story ends on a hopeful and arguably redeptive turn, but we must endure such agony to get there.  It is a moving and powerful book.

It is also a very honest graphic novel, and that is unfortunate for anyone hoping to use it to teach high school literature.  It depicts with graphic frankness: rapes, mutilations, births, opium abuse, sexual abuse involving underaged children, and so many other horrors that it is a painful book to read sometimes.  In the end I was glad I read it, but like Joe Sacco's work it made me feel very uncomfortalbe and unsettled.  I am afraid this one  would be too much for many readers. 

I think these are some powerful books that have a lot to say aobut the treatment of women, children, and arguably all humans in some parts of the world.  But, as Peter Parker's Uncle Ben says, "with great power comes great responsibility."  Read these books with care.  I would hate to see anyone hurt.

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