Rifk Ebeid’s picture book Baba, What Does My Name Mean? takes young Sammidah on a whirlwind tour of a “country” called Palestine. Her tour guide is Salam, the bird of peace, but there is nothing peaceable in this book’s message: It promotes the extinction of an entire country.
The land shown on the map on page 30 of the book is coextensive with Israel, but the young reader will find “Palestine,” not Israel; “Al-Quds,” not Jerusalem; “Al-Khalil,” not Hebron. Anyone who has been to Israel knows that highway signage there is trilingual (Hebrew, Arabic and English). But Ebeid wants Hebrew – which means Israel – erased from the map.
In answer to the question in the book’s title (“Baba, what does my name mean?”), Sammidah learns that it’s “an Arabic word for one who is patient, persistent and one who perseveres.” As the story ends, Sammidah announces that “through persistence and perseverance, I know one day we will be free.”
This so-called freedom, the book signals, will happen when Palestine exists “from the river to the sea” – exactly as the map Sammidah weaves on a traditional Gazan loom depicts her Palestine, with Israel extinguished.
The book invokes, then distorts, the multi-faith nature of Al-Quds, “a holy city treasured by many faiths and home to the holiest of shrines.” In Ebeid’s Al-Quds, the Jewish (and Christian) name “Jerusalem” is erased, and the Temple Mount is deleted. Bethlehem’s Manger Square and Church of the Nativity make an appearance, though the ongoing persecution of Christians – not by Israel, but by the ruling party, Fatah – gives the lie to this deceptive characterization of the Christian sites.
Clichés like “a wonder to behold,” non-rhymes, forced rhymes (“Palestinian” and “millions,” “eyes can see” and “humidity”), and rhythm-less sentences drive home the book’s relentless message:
The historic land of Palestine is a wonder to behold, and I think now is the perfect time for its story to be told. You will first need this key from my necklace, your right to return to your ancestors’ homes, you must treat it like gold.
All children deserve to read Arabic literature, which offers wonderful tales of djinns and ghouls, talking shoes and beautiful princesses. But these same young readers deserve something more than clunky verse and propaganda when encountering a new culture through books.[i]
[i] See the anthology Ghaddar the Ghoul and other Palestinian Stories, by Sonia Nimr (Francis Lincoln Children’s Books, 2007) for a very readable collection.