Friday, April 25, 2014

Adventures and observations at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival

Dune bashing was only the beginning.

On 4/23-24/14, I participated in the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates; I was here for four days of the two-week event along with other American children’s book authors/illustrators including Peter Brown, Meghan McCarthy, and Stephen Messer.

Our appearances consisted of two types: morning talks at schools in Sharjah and an evening panel with academics from the Arab community.

Both were considerably different than any previous author experience I’ve had, and my compatriots had similar reactions.

Both of my Sharjah schools were all-girl and Arab; some authors spoke at Australian or Indian schools and/or all-boy schools. My students were about 12 and 13 years old.

Simply getting to the schools was an adventure. In my first week in the UAE, I’ve been in a lot of cars (not to mention three hotels), and none of the drivers have used GPS. I don’t recall seeing traffic lights in Sharjah. (And the hotels don’t have addresses in the sense we’re used to—no street number. Just “Corniche Street.” Or sometimes even just “near the Expo Center.”) Drivers seem to be guesstimating how to get to places.

My two schools were not only all-girl but also all-shy. I understand. I get the impression they rarely if ever have guest speakers, and almost certainly never a foreign, male guest speaker. I was surprised and impressed that the schools were open to a visitor like me.

Al Noof Government School

Shyness aside, the students were very sweet, and at the first school, the girls did come around by the end of my hourlong talk; a few asked questions, in part thanks to their teacher’s words of encouragement (in English). She invited me to come back and even gave me her cell phone so I could give her notice.

Using humor in this context was tricky. Different culture, different sensibility. The one time I remember the girls at the second school laughing was at the end of my presentation. I was trying to make them feel comfortable enough to ask questions so I said I have children of my own and they ask me lots of questions:

  • “May I please stay up later?”
  • “May I please have another cookie?”
  • “Daddy, would you please stop talking?”

It was that last one that elicited some giggles.

Action at A Ta'la School.

On 4/23/14, Peter and Meghan were on a panel with two Arab speakers. The topic was something like “reading and media.” Each of the four panelists spoke for about 10 minutes each. (We were told in advance that some panelists would not be sticking to the already-vague topics. It’s a cultural thing.)

One of the others on their panel was, I believe, a children’s book author as well. The last was an Egyptian psychiatrist whose focus was the prevention of predatory behavior online. Certainly important, and she was certainly well-spoken, but a strange pairing with children’s authors.

The highlight of that panel (for me as an audience member) was what turned out to be one of many “incidents” during panels at the festival. While the psychiatrist was explaining the gravity and prevalence of child endangerment via the Internet, a man in the audience began to call out at her (in Arabic). Everyone—panelists and audience members alike—had small Star Trek devices in our ears for translations (English to Arabic or vice versa, depending on what you needed).

But the translator in the back of the room could not clearly hear the shouting audience man, who continued to interrupt the psychiatrist to the point that the translator began to plead “Peter Brown, Peter Brown, I can’t work like this! Please intervene!”

Though Peter was sitting next to the psychiatrist, what he (or anyone) could have done to remedy the situation was anyone’s guess. (I was surprised and saddened to later learn that the man was challenging the notion that there could be such abuse in Arab communities.) Luckily, the psychiatrist seemed to shut down the shouting man by saying “There is a fine line between commenting and insulting.”

The translator was either psychic or cybernetic. He translated almost simultaneously as the words came out of a panelist
s mouth, meaning he was both speaking himself and listening to what was being said without missing a syllable. We were in awe.

On 4/24/14, Peter, Meghan, and I went from Sharjah to Dubai to see the Dubai Mall, currently the world’s largest in terms of area, and Burj Khalifa, currently the world’s tallest building. When in a foreign country for the first time, ordinarily none of us would likely go to a mall, but in the UAE, it’s another story.

The mall is indeed a spectacle. It is home to a huge, shark-filled aquarium in which you can scuba dive; presumably the sharks aren’t the human-chomping kind. The mall also includes almost any store you’ve ever heard of and probably at least a couple twice because the second one didn’t know the first one existed.

 Meghan and Peter looking tough in front of a model of 
the mall and the tallest building.

 We are American. Sorry, this is not enough.

The first Häagen-Dazs I have seen that has a menu. 
A hardcover one, no less.

Five times a day in Muslim communities, the call to prayer goes out. I haven’t heard it five times a day—it depends on where you are—but when I do, it’s quite lovely. And it was even piped into the mall.

 At the bottom of “At the Top” (the observation deck, 
which is the highest point paying customers are allowed to go).

 By association, this must be the world’s longest shadow. 
(Longest manmade shadow?) 

 View from the 124th-floor observation deck up the rest 
of the 163-floor building (and up my nose).

 You could pose against a green screen to be superimposed on a scene 
of peril atop the building. Fun to watch people get in position.

 For a fleeting moment, not counting people in planes, 
we were the highest children’s book creators in the world.

 Babies may not be accompanied by adults.

That night was my panel. It was supposed to be me and two Arabs in the field, but only one showed. The topic was equally vague as the night before; it involved the importance of the book and also the development of curriculum.

Due to the disruption, Peter and Meghan’s panel didn’t get to audience questions, but mine did. However, it was not like Q&A during American panels. A woman asked a question that the moderator didn’t turn to us to answer—instead the mic was passed immediately to another audience member who made a statement, then another. Only then did the moderator ask me a question—but it didn’t seem to be a question that had come from the audience. I was confused but did the best I could, and some people were nodding so I guess I didn’t waste their time completely.

A view from the panel.

It was a curious honor that anyone who came to a panel about education with a focus on the Middle East would care what an American author with no Arabic experience had to say. But I am all for bridging gaps between cultures however possible.

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