Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Do you eat cat?

Do you eat cat?

Me neither, but I will never forget being asked this by the first children I visited in a refugee camp for displaced Syrians in Lebanon's Beqaa Valley last summer. It was a solid "la" - no - from me, and a slightly alarmed "wa endkon?" -  and you guys? 

I soon discovered that my answer was all the reassurance the children needed to take me to visit the camp cat, a ginger kitten relaxing in the hands of a boy sat in the sun. Their love of the cat - and enthusiasm for watermelons - stayed with me on that journey home over the mountains to Beirut and eventually inspired The Kitabna Project ( 

Kitabna has now been writing, illustrating and distributing bilingual Arabic-English children's books to displaced Syrians and Palestinians in Lebanon and the wider diaspora since September 2014. Our books are set in refugee camps and aim to de-stigmatize the displacement situation for children who are living it. In the last nine months we have sold our books to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, Norwegian Refugee Council, International Rescue Committee, World Vision, and continue with our own independent distributions.


Illustrations from Kitabna's first book The Giant Watermelon, and second book, below, Esraa's Stories.

We've been told many times that the concept of Arabic-language children's literature is quite undeveloped in Syria and in the wider region, so for this reason one of the next steps for Kitabna is to develop this initiative by commissioning Syrian writers and artists for our next books. I think one of the biggest appeals of the books is the illustrations, especially to encourage those with a lower reading level to get involved with those of a higher reading level. It's quite rare to see illustrated children's books in Arabic, let alone books that represent this unique situation, that effectively tell the displacement story. There's a bond formed between the book and the child, it's very important, a mutual valuing process: the book values the child and the child values the book. 

The little cat on the menu all those months ago has finally shown up in my third book for the project, The Cat's Family, as the character of Noor, a cat who finds an unlikely home with a family forced to leave their city. 

And in fact, based on an illustration I sent her, my little sister has already asked the same same question: 

"They don't cook the cat do they?!"

(They don't cook the cat...)

So the inter-cultural dialogue continues, but no one (to my knowledge) is eating cat. A friend in London read The Giant Watermelon to her primary school students on World Book Day; a reader in Iraq said she read the book to her son:

"He was very intrigued by not just the giant watermelon but also the layout of the book, how it read from end to front and the Arabic script. It also gave me the space to talk to him about refugee camps, Syria, war and children's desire to learn and enjoy their community.”

We've had requests to read the book in schools, in some cases as part of curriculum's introducing the UN Charter. A friend working in a psycho-social centre in the Beqaa Valley said the book transformed one father's relationship with his children, bringing them together to read when he usually gathered them for beatings. NGO's working throughout Lebanon are using the books to bring light to a stigmatized situation, providing teachers with a resource they can use to open up a dialogue about learning in displacement. Our trainings throughout Lebanon with these NGOs, as far north as Quobaiyat and as far south as Marjeyoun, have set the seeds of story-writing in the minds of teachers in schools and camps. One of Kitabna's main aims is to empower children with storytelling, and to help them develop a voice.

So all these months on, countless book deals and trainings and readings later, this question still defines this whole project for me. Do you eat cat? The genuinely curious, charmingly innocent question of children who are proud to have something to care about, despite the poverty and hopelessness of their situation. A few months on from that first visit, at another camp, I was reading with a small group of children when a friend and I were presented with a dead puppy and his barely living brother, nestled together in a plastic tupperware box. This time the children didn't know what to do with the animals, some wanting to pull their tails, some wanting to return them to their mother, others offering them to me. A friend once laughed at me when I admitted that of all the hard things I have witnessed in camps, somehow this was the one incident that made me lose sleep.

"You were in a refugee camp and you cry because of a dead dog?" she asked. 

But looking back now I wasn't mourning the death of a puppy. I was acknowledging the vulnerability of being born in displacement. When we eventually found the mother of the puppies, sheltering beneath a small concrete water tank, she was as exposed and vulnerable as the families around her, settled between that great wall of mountains separating fragile Lebanon from crumbling, volatile Syria. 

As Kitabna's third book explores, perhaps the way we choose to treat a vulnerable animal says a lot about how we might choose to treat a vulnerable human?

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