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Jafar Al Oqaili
“Oh, how much I love you. You know me, who I am.” This quote, attributed to the late Egyptian film director Yusuf Shahin, summarises the seminar titled ‘Tolerance and Accepting the Other’, which was held as part of the Cultural Programme at the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival (SCRF 2018).
The session, which was moderated by writer and publisher Amal Farah, brought together three experts in children’s literature and the publishing industry, who enriched the discussion with their inspiring insights and thoughts.
Among them was Lebanese children’s author Sahar Naja Mahfouz, who writes about the need for tolerance and acceptance, citing a multicultural country like the UAE, where she lives. In her talk, Mahfouz underlined that it is important to teach a child that there are children who are different from them.
Mahfouz has dedicated a number of her books to highlighting this important point after she observed how children in her surroundings deal with other children who are different in terms of colour, race, nationality, religion or sect.
Through her experience, Mahfouz acknowledged that there are countries and societies that contribute to instilling racism and intolerance, while Arab communities are keen to protect the values of acceptance, giving the UAE as the best example of co-existence.
The author of ‘Melia’ and the Giraffe’, and ‘My Dancing Letters’, featuring characters who are different from others but are trying to bring harmony with their surroundings, emphasises the duty of parents and the role they must play in guiding children how to live in a diverse cultural environment.
She said the Arab cultural and educational institutions as well as media are partly responsible for not giving the issue of acceptance the attention and interest it deserves.
Mahfouz raised the question of identity, and argued to what extent can a person integrate? Would tolerance reach the limits of dropping ‘ego’? In the same context, she believes that it is good for each person to know the limits of their abilities and adopt a way of dealing with others.
Mahfouz noted that parents sometimes make their child merge with others without thinking of obstacles. This requires them to give to their children the space and the opportunity to choose their relations without strict control or restrictions, but to guide them if needed.
Also speaking at the seminar was Tamer Said, Managing Director of Kalimat Group, who said that Kalimat does not believe in the concept of borders and hence its message is addressed to humanity as a whole.
He said that since its inception in 2008, Kalimat has focused on producing unique and high-quality publications in its quest for excellence, strengthening its presence on the literary landscape.
Tamer told the seminar that the Kalimat team expressed some concern about producing Arabic language books dealing with subjects that many Arabs regard as taboo. However, Kalimat took the decision to tackle those issues, an approach that has successfully led to expanding its base of readers and clients.
The group deals with these topics from a different angle, he added. “For example, our goal does not revolve around telling children that there is a different person in their surroundings, but to teach them how to adjust to situations they might encounter while interacting and communicating with others.”
He believes that children need to identify who is different, and what that difference is. The question is not about a child’s acceptance of difference, but the difference itself. With its publications that adhere to strict educational standards and values about humanity and universal ideas, Kalimat offers its young readers explanations and even the answers to questions children may ask through its high quality publications.
Tamer Said expressed his pride that Kalimat has given this issue such attention, which has resulted in the publishing of more than 60 books about difference among individuals. He underlined that Kalimat has become an essential and inspiring platform for writers and authors to reach an international audience by allowing them to have their works translated through its partnerships with leading publishing houses and book authorities overseas.
The Managing Director of Kalimat admitted that parents are also in greater need of clarity to correct their perceptions about those who are different from them.
Children cannot shape concepts alone. This is simply because books are chosen by parents, guardians or even librarians. The same applies through the school curriculum.
In conclusion, Tamer said: “The secret of life lies in differentiation, not similarity.”
American author Daniel Ehrenhaft added: “Fanaticism would tear down all bridges between human beings but books can contribute greatly to introducing different cultures and beliefs, paving the way for co-existence on one Earth and under one sky.”
He said today’s generation is more tolerant than its parents, and his novel ‘Love and Hate Filters’ focuses on Muslim teens who live in Western society. His novel aims to remind the community that all humans are equal, and preconceptions need to be changed so that humanity will be able to survive.