Coming from a family that instilled in me an intense pride in my Arab identity, at home Palestine was everywhere: in the tunes I heard, the smells coming from the kitchen, the bedtime stories my father told me of his childhood in Ramallah, Palestine, that I fell asleep to and dreamt of. When I began school, I was confused that my home was nowhere to be found. I learned early on that Palestine was considered a “bad word,” not fit for the classroom. I noticed the difference in how my teachers related to me when I was the white-passing student versus when my Palestinian roots were discovered, which was followed by a cold distance. I figured that it must have been something I was doing. Was I not playing nicely with the other kids? Was I answering questions incorrectly? Did my teacher think I was not a good student? I only later learned from my parents that this discrimination was because of my Palestinian identity. I began to lose faith in the role of the teacher as they were oftentimes the ones reprimanding me in front of my classmates for simply saying who I was: Palestinian.
Too often, when activists and scholars try to address these anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian biases in the curriculum, they are shut down and blacklisted. In her Rethinking Schools article “Save Arab American Studies!” Jody Sokolower outlines this silencing when the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum that included Arab American Studies and Palestine specifically was removed: “A well-organized right-wing campaign headed by a pro-Israel lobby committed to preventing any critical discussion of Israel flooded the [California Department of Education] with demands to remove the Arab American curriculum — especially all mention of Palestine — and the anti-colonial, anti-racist framing of the entire curriculum.”
In reaction to our systematic exclusion, many Palestinians, myself included, are using children’s literature to tell their families’ stories as the foundation to rebuild Palestinian memory and history. These stories are the books we wished for in our classrooms as kids. We hope to create them for our own children and students where they can feel a sense of pride and acceptance in their learning environments. They are also stories that can help non-Palestinian children and educators appreciate aspects of Palestinian life that may be invisible in the rest of the curriculum.
In 1994, Naomi Shihab Nye released Sitti’s Secrets, a story about Mona’s trip to Palestine to see her grandmother or Sitti, and the loving bond that they share for each other and for Palestine, despite living in different places. Nye was one of the first authors to publish a book on Palestine in English. Growing up as a Palestinian-Egyptian-American, I was well aware of my multifaceted identity but also my difference, which as a child made me feel left out at times, and as if I needed to constantly explain myself to my peers and teachers. Sitti’s Secrets delves into the complexities of having a dual identity like Mona, and is particularly important for our students who may be reluctant or nervous about sharing their differences at such a young age when they are just beginning to navigate going to school, making friends, and developing their own confidence.
Laila Taji’s These Chicks (2018) is a board book for early childhood learners based on an old Arabic nursery rhyme. This work was an important step in acknowledging the importance of language as a way of preserving our historical memory. These Chicks offers many Palestinians and Arabs living in the diaspora a way to teach their children Arabic so they might feel connected back to “home.” The book contains both Arabic transliterated text as well as English translation so this folk song of our parents’ childhood can be passed on to future generations in the diaspora. As a baby, my father would sing to me in my crib many Arabic tunes that allowed the love of the Arabic language to grow in my heart and make me feel more connected to my Arab identity. As I grew older, my family and I toured different schools, churches, and rallies to educate people about Palestine through music. An important piece of this work was translating Arabic lyrics to English so the audience could grasp the meaning of the traditional Palestinian songs. Simply hearing the Arabic language allowed these primarily non-Arabic-speaking U.S. audiences to understand and appreciate a bit more about our culture and experience. That is precisely what Taji’s work can do for our students.
P Is for Palestine
Golbarg Bashi’s P Is for Palestine (2018) is an early childhood alphabet book that highlights the beautiful, rich culture and history of Palestine from falafel sandwiches, to the birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, to the keffiyeh, our scarf that is a proud symbol of Palestinian resistance. I remember being ridiculed for bringing hummus in my lunch to school. Now it is a fashionable treat, but not necessarily associated with Palestine. My classmates laughed at me, saying that my lunch was weird and smelled bad. When I attempted to educate my peers and school about Palestinian culture through international day festivals, on multiple occasions teachers did not allow me to bring Palestinian food, wear our traditional dress, and perform a traditional folk dance called dabke. P Is for Palestine is a great book to introduce these elements of Palestinian culture in early childhood classrooms so that the awareness can more easily become a part of the larger school culture preventing a silencing of Palestinian representation.
Baba, What Does My Name Mean?
Rfik Ebeid’s Baba, What Does My Name Mean? (2020) follows Saamidah’s magical journey through Palestine to discover the true meaning of her name: patient, persistent, and one who perseveres. She visits different Palestinian cities, learning their ancient history, geography, and the deep roots of her Palestinian ancestors on this land. When she returns home from Palestine, she understands why her parents named her Saamidah and the role she must play in helping to free Palestine. As a child, I remember feeling like I didn’t belong because I could never walk over to a map in my classrooms and see my father’s home, Palestine. When I asked, I was met by responses that Palestine didn’t exist. Most world maps in our schools do not have Palestine on them, further erasing Palestine from our students’ consciousness and denying Palestinian children their sense of belonging in the classroom. By reading Ebeid’s book that reframes Palestinian geography and history, students can learn about these Indigenous communities and the land they originally inhabited.
Malak Matar’s Sitti’s Bird (2022) is a touching story about a budding artist from Gaza named Malak, who dreams of showing her artwork to the world. Her grandmother’s bird, trapped in a cage, teaches her about her own life as a child in Gaza, unable to fully pursue her dreams. As a child, my Egyptian mother always talked with me about Gaza because it is the Palestinian city that shares a border with Egypt, my other home. Yet, she was careful and thoughtful in the way she chose to expose me gradually to the reality of Israeli brutality and occupation for many Gazan children. My mother, an Egyptian artist, used the healing power of the arts to teach me about Palestine as a child. Sitti’s Bird exhibits how the arts can teach children about sensitive topics related to injustice and brutality in an age-appropriate way, particularly through Malak’s inspiring story as a Gazan artist.
* * *
Although I would listen to my father’s stories when I was a child and imagine Palestine as my fantastical, magical land, I am delighted that I can now share a beautiful canon of Palestinian children’s books with my early childhood students, so the love of Palestine can grow in their hearts as it continues to grow in mine. Although representation in Palestinian children’s literature is essential, these stories go beyond that and reflect the complexity and diversity of the Palestinian experience. With more than 5 million Palestinians living in the diaspora, our family’s stories of expulsion, longing for home, and continued persecution and discrimination are a collective one that must be recorded. They unite in the goal of returning home. These books play an essential part in asserting this shared Palestinian history. An important piece of our resistance is reading these books to our children.