When I am in a country with a different writing script I have a feeling of distance. This does not happen in countries where I can sound out the words, even if I do not understand them. I remember the achievement years ago when I realised I could sound out a street sign in Thai: Co-ca Co-la! The fact that it looks nearly the same as the English version helped enormously, but nevertheless I could proudly identify every letter.
The context helps, as I realised last year when I visited the Medina Children’s Library in Fès, Morocco.
I opened a door from the street directly into a magic room of books and their enthusiastic young readers. It is the only public library for children in the medina, supported entirely by donations, and volunteers such as university students Said and Amina who had come in to read a story to any of the children who could bear to put down their own books and listen.
They were talking in Arabic, which I do not understand, so as my gaze wandered around the room I idly wondered what the poster in the middle of one wall was about. Then I realised that even without knowing any of the Arabic script I could work out quite a bit – from being able to read (English), and from knowing about the signs which are usually found in children’s libraries.
I guessed it must be the library rules, and after checking that with Samia Bachraoui, the librarian, I tried to work out what they were. I knew that the children in the medina may not be from ‘book-friendly’ homes, so there could be a reminder to look after the books. Others would probably be about good behaviour in the library. At the end of the poster a word was written three times. The library has an encouraging atmosphere, so…?
Samia confirmed my guesses. I have put the list below for anyone who also wants to try their hand at transferring their literacy skills into Arabic.
The library encourages visitors, and I went back a day or two later and read them Michael Rosen’s ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ in English, with Samia translating from the Arabic version. Then we had a lively ‘Q&A’ about Aotearoa New Zealand, Australia, and me. When I got home I decided to see if I could find any Australian or New Zealand books in Arabic to send over. I eventually found two picture books about Australia: Dana Skopal’s ‘Can I have a lamington, please?’ and ‘Can you do anything special?’ Food and animals – a good way of representing culture.
Sending the books to Morocco proved to be a bit complicated, and definitely not a cost-effective donation, but how else can the children in the medina learn how to make lamingtons? A couple of weeks ago Samia emailed to say that they had arrived (six months after our visit). I asked her for a translation of the rules – I think they are a great list for any learning situation:
- Be polite.
- Help each other & share books.
- Remember to ask lots of questions.
- Remember to bring back the borrowed books.
- Be nice with books.
- Work hard & have fun at the library.
- Ask for help.
Read, Read, Read.