Alumni News: Disability and Belonging in Arabic Children’s Literature

Susanne Abou Ghaida is a first year PhD student at the University of Glasgow, researching the Arabic Young Adult Novel. She completed her MA in Children’s Literature at the University of Roehampton in 2014. In that same year, she presented her paper “Disability in Arabic Children’s Literature: Inclusion, Participation and Belonging” at the IBBY/NCRCL MA Conference. Susanne developed her conference paper for publication this year in eSharp, entitled “In the world but not of it: Disability and belonging in Arabic children’s literature on disability”.

By Susanne Abou Ghaida

I first began to look at disability in Arabic children’s literature in 2011. At the time, I was coordinating the Arabic Children’s Literature and Reading Programme, and one of our activities was a prize for books on disability. We asked publishers to nominate entries, and it was an opportunity to discover books on disability from different Arab countries. We noticed a clear will to portray disability positively, but also some confusion, including in our own minds, about how to do so. Our next step was to organise a workshop, the first of its kind in the Arab world, on inclusive and accessible books with the wonderful Alexandra Strick.

What began as a professional interest morphed into academic engagement. When I was doing my MA in children’s literature at Roehampton University, I wrote an assignment on representations of disability in Arabic children’s literature, getting introduced in the process to disability studies which continues to inform my views on this topic. Later, when the NCRCL and IBBY UK announced that the theme for their 2014 conference was “Belonging is… an exploration of the right to be included and the barriers that must be overcome”, I sent in an abstract, entitled “Disability in Arabic Children’s Literature: Inclusion, Participation and Belonging”, that was later accepted.

In keeping with the theme of the conference, I decided to focus on how Arabic children’s literature depicts disability in social space. Disabled people, real and fictional, do not live in a vacuum but within various social units, from friendship circles to families to larger communities. The vast majority of Arabic children’s literature has a clear agenda of promoting inclusion, a vision of disabled people at the heart and not the fringes of their communities. However, if one looks more closely, are there fissures and problematic features within this seemingly unified message? In addition to examining how these books promote inclusion, I pay special attention to a trope that recurs frequently in this literature, the disabled achiever or ‘supercrip.’ I argue that achievement often becomes a requirement for societal acceptance, a ‘tax’ to be paid while the belongingness of non-disabled characters is never in question. As I like to end on a high note, I then closely analyze two wonderful children’s books that make us look at disabled achievement in new ways: Heya, Huma, Hunna She, The Two of Them, They] by Nahla Ghandour (author) and Jana Traboulsi (illustrator) and Moghanni al-MatarThe Rain Singer] by Zakariyya Muhammad (author) and Ahmad Al-Khaldi (illustrator).

I felt that presenting a paper at a conference was an ideal starting point for a chapter or journal article. Getting my abstract accepted was a confidence boost, and I had a clear deadline to have a draft ready. I also found the feedback I got insightful and encouraging. Later when eSharp, a postgraduate journal edited by MA and PhD students at the University of Glasgow where I am currently doing my PhD, launched a call for papers on the theme of ‘Inclusion and Belonging’, I sent in an abstract. Once the abstract was accepted, I had two months to revise the paper I had presented at the NCRCL/IBBY Conference paper. This draft was sent to an anonymous peer reviewer (also a postgraduate student), who fortunately only requested a few clarifications and asked me to rewrite my conclusion which I did while making sure that my paper complied with the journal’s style guide. Then, like a proud parent, I saw my paper let loose into the world.

To read the full version of my paper, “In the world but not of it: Disability and belonging in Arabic children’s literature on disability”, click here; a short version of the paper is available on the IBBY UK website. Also, a French translation of Heya, Huma, Hunna [She, The Two of Them, They] is available from Amazon.