Book Review: Arabic Stories for Language Learners
Published: February 24, 2020
For as long as I can remember, I have loved reading. Whether it is the classic literature that I read in my English classes or books like the Harry Potter series, which I read for leisure, I love diving into the stories and walking miles and miles in a character’s shoes. I love that when I read a book, I have the freedom to visualize the characters and scenery the way that I think they should appear.
However, most of the reading I do is in English. The only Arabic text I read consistently is the Qur’an, and while I previously tried to read Arabic news websites, I could never maintain the practice for long. Since I know I love to read books, I finally decided to go searching for a book of stories in Arabic, one that wouldn’t overwhelm me, but that would interest me and help me build up my Arabic vocabulary.
That’s when I stumbled upon Arabic Stories for Language Learners by Hezi Brosh and Lutfi Mansur. The book is a collection of stories, each no more than two pages long, about the Arab people before and after Islam came around. What struck me the most about the stories is that they are almost like fables. They tell you something about the values of the Arab people of that time, but in an elegant and humorous way, that makes you feel closer to the culture.
In terms of its value for language learners, the book has Arabic stories followed by the English translations of those stories. I found this format convenient, because it allowed me to completely read the Arabic before popping over to the English translation to figure out the meanings of unfamiliar words. Following some of the stories are related images of art from the Arab world. The book also comes with a CD for those who would rather listen to the stories and develop their listening comprehension.
Since the best part of the book is simply its stories, I thought I would share three of my favorite tales from the book:
The first story is titled “The Arab Sheik and the Spanish Man.” In this story, an Arab man and a Spaniard fight in the marketplace. The Spaniard strikes the Arab man and then flees the scene. He winds up hiding in an Arab sheik’s house. The Arab sheik shares some of his figs with the Spaniard and tells the Spaniard that when Arabs dine with a foreigner, they must protect the foreigner with their life. Later, the sheik discovers that the Spanish man had, in fact, hit his own son. Nevertheless, the sheik helps the Spaniard escape, saying that Arabs are “keen to fulfill their promises.”
Our own meeting with the Spanish village on I-day:
The second story I loved was titled “The Girl and the Coals.” In this story, a group of travelers in the desert stop at an oasis. Amina and her mother are unable to build a fire, and so Amina’s mother sends her to look for burning coal at a neighboring tent. The owner of the tent is confused as to how Amina is planning to transport the coal back to her tent when she has brought nothing to hold the coal in, but Amina tells the owner that he can simply place the burning coal on top of the pile of sand that she holds. After Amina departs, the owner remarks that no matter how long you live or how far you travel, there will always be something new to learn.
The final story involves a famous literary figure called Joha, who is a wise fool character. In “Joha and his Donkey,” Joha and his son ride on a donkey through town. As they pass one man, he remarks about how cruel Joha is to make his donkey carry two people. Joha feels guilty and so gets down from the donkey and lets his son continue to ride atop the donkey alone. A short while later, they pass another man, who remarks that the son is disrespectful for making his old father walk on the ground while he rides on the donkey. As a result, the son gets down and Joha rides the donkey. Yet, once again someone criticizes Joha for riding the donkey while his young son walks. Joha and his father discuss what to do and decide that the only solution is to carry the donkey on their backs. However, as they walk through town, the townspeople ridicule the pair. At this point, Joha and his son decide to revert to their original plan, and both ride on the donkey. The story is a subtle reminder that one shouldn’t care too much about the judgment of others.
For me, the most uplifting part of reading this book is how it brings Arab culture and values to life. There is so much negative press about Arabs in Western media that for me picking up this book is like taking a breath of fresh air. I feel a sense of relief as I read these stories, because they echo the beauty that I see in my culture. Whether it is to feel a similar sense of relief or to simply explore a new culture, I encourage anybody to pick up a book of stories in another language.