The Majlis: Reading can help to heal troubled children

Noura Al Khoori on how a trip to speak at the Berlin International Literature Festival proved a pivotal paint in her writing career.

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Mention reading and some of the images that come to mind are classrooms dotted with backpacks brimming with textbooks, home libraries packed with yellowing books, contemporary e-readers, daily digital blog posts and the morning newspaper.

Reading lends itself to so many avenues, from leisure to education; short stories written as 140-character tweets to old-fashioned letters or emails from loved ones or work colleagues or a technical manual on how to operate an appliance. Often, though, people don’t think about the influence of reading as a way of healing, especially for children.

A child, by nature, is easily absorbed into the journey of a character in a story, and this gives ­storytellers and writers a compelling opportunity.

My career in writing for children is fairly young and I’m anything but a prolific writer. Yet luck was on my side when I was chosen to speak at the Berlin International Literature Festival in September last year, alongside my friend and fellow children’s writer Maitha Al Khayat. We packed our bags and flew on the night of Eid Al Adha.

The trip was organised and sponsored by the Goethe ­Institute Abu Dhabi, the UAE Board on Books for Young People, the Arab-German Friendship Society in Berlin and the UAE Embassy in Berlin.

Its main purpose was to present Emirati culture through the books we had written as part of the Books – Made in UAE initiative. All of these books reflected our culture in a fun, gripping way for ­children.

The highlight of the festival – reading our stories in Arabic (with German translation) onstage – proved to be one of the most successful sessions. We had 270 students and their teachers listening to our stories of picking dates from palm trees and how a girl finds a way to wear her veil. Children who had never been to the Middle East tried on kanduras, walked alongside a camel marionette and wore a burqa.

We also read to several groups of refugee children, most of whom were Arabs. We went not knowing what to expect. The ethnic and sociological diversity among the refugee children was vast: from Syrians integrated into regular German schools to toddlers arriving with their parents from Asia.

For young Arabs torn from their lands, seeing two Arab women in their national attire brought the warmth of familiarity. Maitha and I were able to shift dialects, from our native Emirati Arabic to the more familiar tongue of the Levant.

The children were fixated on the stories we had to tell – maybe not quite from their own parts of the world, but from a neighbouring land. Older students engaged with us in vivid conversations about their homelands, relatives, journeys and dreams. They were intelligent, driven, humorous and wise for their age. It was difficult to tell the degree of trauma they had seen, but they were robust. And stories, they said, were an essential part of coming to terms with their new reality.

At the shelter housing younger children, stories did them wonders. That’s where I realised that reading can heal. Stories can be an antidote, even if a momentary one, which counteracts scenes of hardships and incomprehensible misery that these children may have seen on their journeys to a country foreign to them.

Those three days in Berlin were a pivotal point in my humble writing career. To create stories for children is to tap into the innocence and pure fun of childhood. It is to grow hope in their hearts, bring out laughter and touch the lives of children ­forever.

* As told to Jessica Hill

Noura Al Khoori writes children's fiction books with elements of the natural environment and local culture, and is one of the scriptwriters for the Arabic version of Sesame Street, Iftah Ya Simsim. Her published books include Fanteer the Fluffy Flamingo, Golden Dates and her most recent, Tender Hands, which tells a story of children displaced by war.