Most people would agree that it is important for parents to instil a sense of national and cultural identity in their children in order to preserve their heritage for future generations, especially for those from immigrant or refugee families. The Palestinian diaspora and others living in the western world are no exception.
There aren’t many English-language children’s books related to Palestine; perhaps the most notable in recent times was P is for Palestine: A Palestine Alphabet Book, which was shortlisted for the Palestine Book Awards in 2018. It caused some controversy by not shying away from the realities of the illegal Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
Yet the debut book by Rifk Ebeid (who is of Palestinian descent), Baba, What does my name mean? A Journey to Palestine goes beyond the letters of the alphabet and is therefore geared to a slightly older age, making it an ideal story for bedtime. In fact, the book opens with a young Palestinian refugee girl called Saamidah who, after being tucked into bed by her father, quite typically asks him the meaning of her name. She had been asked this by her friends at school that day.
“We named you this because you are a PALESTINIAN,” Saamidah’s father explains. “Your name carries the weight of a nation beloved to millions.” What follows is a vivid and nostalgic journey into historic Palestine as our young protagonist is handed a key from her Baba’s necklace, this being a potent symbol of every exiled Palestinian’s aspiration to fulfil the legitimate right to return to their homeland, while accompanied by a helpful white dove of peace, appropriately named “Salaam”.
The book flows in well-written rhyme and both informs and entertains the reader. We are told the names of all the major cities that make up historic Palestine and what each one is famous or known for. Saamidah is first taken to Areeha (Jericho), for example, an ancient Canaanite city, identified as one of the oldest cities and the lowest in the world.
Witnessing the surprisingly diverse terrain that Palestine has on offer, we also get a flavour for some of the local delicacies such as kunafa, “a famous Nablus treat”. Those familiar with the traditional Al-Jamal brand of olive oil soap, which is also from the West Bank city, will spot it with its distinctive wrapping carefully depicted.
The colourful illustrations by Lamaa Jawhari help bring the text to life, so that we can imagine vividly the bustling noises and smells of the Old City in Jerusalem. Jawhari, who is also of a Palestinian background, does a brilliant job in providing a snapshot of how Palestine must have looked before the 1948 Nakba (Catastrophe). Although the book doesn’t venture into subtle political undertones as the alphabet book does, there is a sad reminder of Saamidah’s family predicament when we are told of her father’s childhood stories in the coastal city of Yafa before her family “was forced to run”.
It is arguably unavoidable to touch on issues related to liberation and the right of return against the backdrop of displacement from one’s homeland. This is especially so when the main character is gifted the key to her ancestral house from the outset and the iconic Palestinian kufiyyah gets a mention later in the book.
In a touching ending, we come to understand the relevance of Saamidah’s name and how it ties into her father’s yearning to return to Palestine. Despite the challenges ahead, we feel a sense of optimism for the future from the very real inquisitive nature of the child, as Saamidah also asks how she and her family became refugees, which is another story in itself.
My one criticism of the book is the choice of font and style; I didn’t find the white text very legible at times, especially when it overlapped on the very detailed illustrations. Granted, there is a lot of information to unpack in limited space, but I believe that this is one area that could be improved by the publishers in any future editions.
I enjoyed the quiz at the end of the book. It’s a great idea and a fun way for parents and children to engage with the story and to discuss the themes further.
Baba, What Does My Name Mean? is a commendable first book by the author which should become a staple in every Palestinian diaspora home. It will undoubtedly feed the curiosity of young minds about who they are and where they come from. This makes it a valuable starting point in the long journey towards freedom for Palestine and keeping the hope of return alive in generations to come.