Library of Small Wonders

Near Petra in Jordan is Beidha, a tiny village of featureless concrete houses but ringed by moonscape mountains beautiful beyond belief. People have lived there since Neolithic times, most recently the once nomadic Bedouin, their black and brown goat hair tents now mainly places of entertainment, their fine horses and camels for carrying tourists to the high plateaus.

Their children leave school early to work the mountains as guides. ‘This is the pool of John the Baptist’s tears,’ ‘This is where the ghosts live,’ they tell you springing from rock to rock, calling ahead on their mobile phones to alert family members that a foreigner is on the way up the path. And a little glass of hot sweet tea, just for you, will be waiting beside the strings of cloves and coin necklaces.

The morning I visit Beidha with my friends Rabeea and Awad, the roads are blocked by flashing lights and armed security guards who check us and our van thoroughly. Petra is being turned into a world stage for a gala event to celebrate the life of Luciano Pavarotti. The sandy floor of the great Nabateean cavern is already deep in red carpets; lighting engineers are rehearsing their illuminations. Jose Carreras, Andrea Bocelli, Sting and many other stars will perform for wealthy and titled patrons who will arrive by private jet and limousine as night falls.

The event, hosted by HRH Princess Haya Bint Al Hussein of Jordan and Wife of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid, the ruler of Dubai, is unprecedented, magnificent and will cost many millions. Later, the film will be shown around the world, raising money for international charities.

The new children’s library in Beidha we have come to see is also unprecedented. In a country where poor schools often have no books at all and, if they are lucky, make do with photocopies, the simple building in the village is a small miracle. It is already a place where children rush to after class, where mothers come to learn to read and help catalogue books, and volunteers teach library skills and read stories. This is part of a community-based programme that began in a poor settlement in Amman after the suicide bombings of three international hotels in 2005. Now Ruwaad’s outreach programmes are starting to spread, their costs modest, their effects long- lasting.

We have arrived unannounced to avoid a special effort being made to impress us. Rabeea tells me about an impoverished municipal library with empty shelves in a large northern city that she was helping a few years ago. One day the town was to be honoured by a visit from a member of the royal family. The Ministry of Education delivered several truckloads of books from a nearby university so that the Prince, a great reader, would not be embarrassed when he asked to see the library. Rabeea threatened to tell him, so the official would lose face. The books were allowed to stay.

First we must call on the village elder whose blessing for the library was essential to its acceptance. She is dressed in a black thobe with loose sleeves and bands of red embroidery, her chin and cheeks covered in blue tattoos. Her smile is huge and she hugs us both and offers a nagilla pipe and tiny cups of Arab coffee then sits in a corner smoking and gossiping with Rabeea.

It is nearly siesta time when we get there, but the library is full of bright-eyed Bedouin children on mats listening to stories. In another room some young mothers are being taught to write the Arabic alphabet with felt pens on a white board. I long to join them. The bookshelves are well-stocked and the books well-thumbed and the children show us their favourites while we are served coffee and almond biscuits.

Pippi Longstocking by Swedish author Astrid Lindgren has been in Arabic for some years and has lots of fans. One little boy especially loves Mammo Moo Goes down a Slide, about a cow which does unusual things. Hans Andersen’s Fairy Tales and several copies of The Very Hungry Caterpillar are there reading from right to left. So are European versions of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin, both traditional Arab tales once told around campfires by nomadic people like the grandparents of these children and turned into exotic stories for Western children in the eighteenth century. Now they have been translated back into Arabic.

Translation still depends largely on individual enthusiasms. A determined and generous Swedish wife of a Jordanian ambassador was behind the Scandinavian translations into Arabic, I am told, and now the work of the Anna Lindh Foundation with Ruwaad is encouraging many more.

There are no books from Australia. Later, sitting on the wall outside the library under a pale blue sky streaked with clouds and jetstreams, I decide I will try to find some when I go home. I also want to return next time having learnt enough Arabic to say a little more than Salaam Alleikum and Ana min Australia – perhaps even able to tell the children a story from my part of the world.

In Melbourne before Christmas, a friend of a friend gives me the name of a young Iraqi university student, who agrees to teach me some basic colloquial Arabic. We meet twice a week at the City Library in Flinders Lane where, by taping and replaying her lovely voice again and again, my atrocious pronunciation slowly improves and, as we get to know each other, Hawraa’s story unfolds.

Eight years ago she arrived with her parents and young sister and more than 220 other asylum seekers on the Oolong, a delapidated Indonesian fishing boat. This was ‘Suspected Illegal Entry Vessel 4’ – the boat demonised by the Howard Government in election mode as carrying ‘the kind of people we didn’t want here’, people who ‘threw their children overboard’.

Her mother pleaded with her before they left Indonesia to wear trousers, but Hawraa was twelve, modest, determined to dress like a woman in a heavy burqua. She was less scared, she says, of being weighed down in the water when she jumped over the side than she was of the cockroaches that poured out of the bottom of the boat as it started to sink. Eventually the HMAS Adelaide was given permission to launch boats to pick the people up.

After months on Manus Island, the family then had several years in the Maribyrnong Detention Centre, before Hawraa was allowed to go to school. She travelled each day to Footscray City College in a locked van, telling none of her classmates where she lived because she didn’t want their pity. She learnt English fast and good marks followed. Finally the family was allowed to stay and Hawraa is now in her third year of Biomedical Science and Engineering at Swinburne University.

My second task, to find some Australian children’s books for translation into Arabic, doesn’t appeal much to those publishers I ring. The Middle East is still mainly worked out of the UK, it seems. Then a publishing friend tells me about a series for young children which The Five Mile Press has recently sold to a Lebanese company for translation. When I’m Feeling Angry, When I’m Feeling Sad, When I’m Feeling Happy, and When I’m Feeling Scared are beautifully illustrated and written by Trace Moroney and deal with problems in a reassuring way.

They look good to me, but cultural differences complicate children’s publishing. In many parts of the Arab world, shame is still attached to mental health problems and counselling is rarely available. I ask Hawraa to read the books in Arabic to her sister and her friends. The young Iraqi-Australians who have also been through hell are enthusiastic. Like Hawraa, they remember the fear, the boredom in the camps with nothing but television, concern for parents and for family left behind.

I am ashamed of our harsh refugee policies and expect to hear bitterness, but I don’t. Hawraa’s story is also about the kindness of people, those guards who befriended her, the teachers who helped her, who bent the rules so she could start university before her permanent visa came through, and people who passed round the hat for her fees.

I am returning to the Middle East soon and will visit other villages and settlements where libraries are being established for impoverished and sometimes traumatised children, those most vulnerable to manipulation and extremism. Some writers, like my friend Rabeea Al Nasser, are finding ways to work with children in poor communities, believing that books and story-telling are a crucial first step.

This time I know I’ll be asked about our fires and the photos of koalas and kangaroos with burnt paws which have been circulating on YouTube and Arab television. I’ll also have some books to show and a true story to tell about a clever girl who says that what she has been through has made her strong.