Gaza is a literary challenge. You want a wide audience to learn about this unique outpost of occupation and contempt, but how to convey the atrocities and human rights abuses of the siege and the latest war and the war before that one in a manner that westerners can absorb? Especially children. They don’t want to see pictures of children dying. But we have an obligation to tell them about what is taking place in Gaza, because it is part of the history that is shaping them to become adults.
Emma Williams and Ibrahim Quraishi and Jean Stein came up with the perfect approach to this challenge in the form of The Story of Hurry, a Gaza donkey who is painted to look like a zebra so that children can see a zebra in the Gaza zoo. You surely remember the original for this fable from 2009. Many animals in the Gaza zoo had been starved or parched or slaughtered during the Israeli onslaught. The two zebras had both died. So the zookeepers painted stripes on beasts of burden. Photos of the donkeys went round the world.
Author Williams and illustrator Quraishi and editor Stein (a friend of mine) have taken the donkey’s shapeshifting even further and made a frolicsome young donkey stand in for the entire society. We learn through Hurry’s story about the deprivations in that “dry country by the sea”–darkened nights, water that can’t be drunk, it’s too salty, and the lack of freedom of travel. Hurry is on the verge of a life of labor himself, and he wants to make children happy. But:
They were often hungry. They were often thirsty. They often had to sit in darkness. And their land was a land of storms. Some nights, the sky thundered and brightness cracked the sky. Then the children were afraid.
Hurry gets an idea when he is talking to Sumood.
Sumood wanted light to read by at night. She wanted to see the places she found in her books. But she couldn’t go to the mountains, or to the cities, or anywhere. Worst of all, she couldn’t see the strange animals she read about.
So we learn about Gaza conditions in that allusive way. The children are “chased out of the sea by angry men.” And Quraishi’s illustration shows us silhouettes of soldiers. The English author doed not bang you over the head with facts about the siege, but lets them serve a touching story. Quraishi is a Paris artist; his images are circumspect, but very dark in mood. Nothing insistent. Seven Stories is a press long dedicated to human rights; it offers the fable in the spirit of The Story of Ferdinand, the famous pacifist bull in the days of fascism. And Hurry can surely get through doors that have been resistant to more frontal descriptions of Palestine.
If a child is ready to hear the actual conditions of life in Gaza, well there are a few pages of explanatory notes at the end of the book. Why can’t the children go to places they read about? Why are the children hungry? Why do the children long for quiet skies? Young people aren’t the only ones who will profit from these notes: Seven Stories Press tells us the book is for “inquisitive children aged 3 to 103.”
I can’t think of a better way to inscribe Gaza in a child’s memory without overly disturbing that young person with brutal imagery. They deserve to know. If you’re looking for a child’s gift for the holidays, get the story of Hurry.