Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Acts of love

Acts of love

This week I will collect the first 1500 copies of my second book for displaced Syrian children living in Lebanon,  قِصصُ إِسْراءْ  Esraa's Stories. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees have already ordered 500 copies, and we can't wait to distribute them in wider Lebanon with other organisations, including International Rescue Committee and Norwegian Refugee Council. Esraa's Stories tells the tale of a girl who loves to read and write but who does not miss her books in Syria because the stories inside them have stayed inside her head. She helps others collect their memories and tell their stories. It's a book about sharing experience, but also a book about ways of being, ways of acting, and a book for children who are naturally introverted but have forced by circumstances to be part of a group.

It's going to be a really special moment, to see the pile of boxes for the first time and carry each box up the two flights of stairs to my apartment in Beirut, the unofficial Kitabna HQ. It's a wonderful feeling to hold a book in your hands that you have pored over for months, checking every aleph, every tiny talmar buuta, every hamzeh, every commar and expression. It's amazing to see the paintings, the names of those who have brought the book into existence, the story set down on paper. It's a pleasure to know that the act of making a book has strengthened a treasured friendship with my Syrian translator, Ahmed. I have already planned a teaching program for the book at the Yalla school in the mountain town of Aley, and the children in the Beqaa Valley have been waiting for it since December of last year. It is a book we have printed using donations and sales of e-books across the world, from people who want to see children reading. As the day approaches, I realise that this book is really an act of love. 

Adhaf Soueif writes about the many different words for love in Arabic fusha in her book, The Map of Love:

‘Hubb’ is love, ‘ishq’ is love that entwines two people together, ‘shaghaf’ is love that nests in the chambers of the heart, ‘hayam’ is love that wanders the earth, ‘teeh’ is love in which you lose yourself, ‘walah’ is love that carries sorrow within it, ‘sababah’ is love that exudes from your pores, ‘hawa’ is love that shares its name with ‘air’ and with ‘falling’, ‘gharam’ is love that is willing to pay the price.

It makes our one word, love, in English, seem slightly redundant, but then love has always struck me as something best manifested in our actions. When I was younger I was afraid of the word love, because it encompassed so much and so little all at once, and even now I feel nervous to share my feeling that this book, this project, is an act of love. But reading is something I will always associate with love. In my own life I will never forget those books given by my parents, my friends, those books I knew as friends, those stories that taught me to think and imagine, those words that guide my choices, those characters who asked me to think about what it means to be human. Ali Smith once wrote:

And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to.

You can buy an e-book of Esraa’s Stories at :

It has always struck me as widely understated that love, or loving, is a very brave act. I thought of this when I arrived back in Beirut last month, and watched my friend Zeinab’s mother balance her granddaughter on her knee in the Palestinian camp of Shatila. Like many of her generation in the camp, Zeinab’s mother lost those she loved in the massacres of 1982 and has grown up with the fear that what happened to her family might happen again, to the families of her sons and daughters. In a world that ignores the oppression of Palestinians, that barely recognizes the state of Palestine and casually shrugs off any responsibility for wrongs past and present, her fears are well-founded. I think I could understand if she abandoned hope, happiness, and love. But instead she loves as easily as she breathes. She welcomes me - and my friends and family when they come to Lebanon - as warmly as if we were the granddaughter on her knee in this photograph. I keep this image close as a reminder that acts of love transcend acts of hate, and will do, always.

Thanks for reading.

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