Palestinian middle-grade and YA fantasies set in our time often have a magical element that helps the protagonist cross through checkpoints, get over walls, or sneak past soldiers. Walid Daqqa’s The Oil’s Secret Tale has invisibility; in Sonia Nimr’s Thunderbird, the first in a trilogy, Noor can set things on fire (and travel through time); and in Huda El Shuwa’s popular and acclaimed 2017 novella Dragon of Bethlehem, Khidr is visited by a dragon.
Thanks to initiatives like the Palestine Writing Workshop and publishing houses like the Tamer Institute, Palestinian fantasy literature for children is full of passionate, vibrant, and relatable young protagonists. None of the award-winning books mentioned above have yet been translated to English.
Like many novels for young readers, Dragon of Bethlehem has a flawed protagonist who struggles to grow up under difficult circumstances. But Dragon of Bethlehem is about looking up at the sky, seeing things from a new vantage point, and how — even when things seem hopeless — it’s possible to change the small things around you.
This is a short work, just 76 pages in the Arabic. On her website, artist Hanane Kai has a beautiful short explanation about her design decisions for the book.
The novel is built around a boy named Khidr who’s just turned 16, and who lives in the Dheisheh Refugee Camp south of Bethlehem. When the book opens, Khidr’s life is a mess. He’s recently lost his only friend, isn’t a good student, and his father is in a psychiatric hospital. The other kids at school bully him mercilessly (especially Marwan), and the teachers aren’t much kinder.
Khidr’s life begins to change when he meets a sarcastic dragon (or rather, when the dragon barges into his tiny camp house during the rain, because dragons do not like rain). The dragon takes him up into the skies above Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the surrounding areas to show him his world afresh. Although at first his teachers just punish him even more for his new creativity, Khidr is not deterred. The dragon himself doesn’t change anything about Khidr’s life. But being able to see the world from above, and suddenly realizing all the amazing history and wildlife that surrounds him in Bethlehem, changes Khidr’s life. There is no happily ever after, but Khidr does grow, and eventually even goes to visit his father at the psychiatric hospital, something he’d been avoiding.
What I think is so special about this book is four-fold: First, Khidr isn’t clever or special or handsome or gifted, some “super” refugee. He’s a crummy student who is not beloved of his teachers, and who doesn’t get along with his peers, except for his dead friend Adnan and Hassan, a kid in class who stutters. The teachers, too, are imperfect, and they cause Khidr to doubt himself even more. Second, the sarcastic dragon. Who wouldn’t love a sarcastic dragon? Third, the gentle interleaving of Palestinian (mostly Christian) history and historical sites in and around Bethlehem. This never feels heavy-handed, and I ended the book feeling like I knew a lot more about the holy city. Fourth, Khidr’s personal growth! At the end, I don’t know what’s going to happen to Khidr, but I definitely cried.
In 2018, Dragon of Bethlehem was turned into a musical narrative by Faraj Sulaiman, and presented by narrator Fida’ Zaidan and The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music.
You can read the first few chapters online at ArabLit, and, hopefully, another will appear in a future issue of Words Without Borders. Arabic copies are for sale at the Tamer Institute website, and hopefully the book will find a good home in English — and in other languages around the world — in the near future, so that it can bring joy and delight to new communities of readers.
M Lynx Qualey co-translated the co-written middle-grade novel Ghady & Rawan (2018), and her translation of Sonia Nimr’s award-winning YA novel, Wondrous Journeys in Amazing Lands, is forthcoming from Interlink in Fall 2020. She is a critic and editor who helps run ArabLit (www.arablit.org), ArabLit Quarterly, ArabKidLitNow, WorldKidLit, and is co-host of the Bulaq podcast. She has a particular sweet tooth for YA fantasy and speculative fiction in sharply rendered settings around the world.