When the children’s alphabet book “P is for Palestine” was published last year, Iranian-born author Dr. Golbarg Bashi expected some backlash, though certainly not the deluge of hate that she had to fend off. Indeed, the lack of any positive portrayal of Palestinian life in children’s books is what motivated Bashi to write. She shines a loving light on people she first got to know and care for in Sweden where she herself was a young refugee after her family fled the Iran-Iraq war. “In Sweden, I met children from other war-zones and exchanged stories with them. It was the plight of the Palestinian refugees that struck a deep cord with me,” Bashi wrote.
Today Bashi is a frequent presenter in New York schools, where she introduces young children to various cultures from around the world. At first she could not find any books on Palestine that portrayed its people as ordinary folk mostly going about their daily lives, so she determined to write one herself. As Bashi explained shortly before the book was in print: “This book is for the Palestinian child to show her or his friend during a playdate or take to school for a reading.”
The publication of “P is for Palestine” was as welcome by allies of Palestine as it was opposed by Zionists. Bashi’s choice of “I is for Intifada,” illustrated by a father carrying his daughter on his shoulder, as she flies the Palestinian flag, provoked the ire of Zionists who cannot abide the Palestinian impulse towards self-determination. But Bashi insisted, in a statement published as the attempt to silence her reached a crescendo: “P is for Palestine, and I is for Intifada. It would be irresponsible of an author of a book for Palestinian children (e.g. Native American children) to ignore or whitewash the fact that their people have a resistance movement, most of which is manifested in peaceful protest.”
Bashi has since received death threats, and a handful of rabbis have forced an independent bookstore chain in New York, Book Culture, to issue an apology for advertising the book, thus potentially intimidating other bookstores into not stocking it. According to Book Culture’s owner, Chris Doeblin, the last time the store faced such threats was decades ago, after Iran issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for “The Satanic Verses.” Today, however, the book is available for purchase through Amazon–when it is not out of stock.
Indeed, despite the huge backlash “P is for Palestine” has gone into multiple reprints, selling out every time. More recently the Middle East Monitor listed it as one of four recommended titles in its 2018 Palestine Book Award selection. And now Bashi is working on what promises to be an absolutely delightful complementary book, “Counting Up the Olive Tree: A Palestine Number Book”, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali, which teaches numbers in a context of resistance to the destruction of that most symbolic icon of Palestine: the olive tree.
In the new book, which I got a preview copy of, young football (soccer) players from various Palestinian villages need to come together to protect “the last olive tree” from “the woeful woodcutter.”
“Please don’t cut our olive tree, in our land yet to be free,” the children plead with the woodcutter, who dismisses them with a shudder. As the woodcutter lies down for a nap, the children call other children to join them as they climb up the tree, and “Player number 1, told player number 2, get hold of number 3, who told 4, we must protect the olive tree, all of us and some more…”
And as all eleven players from that team scramble up the olive tree, with little shouts of Yallah! yallah! they can see “Look who’s coming! The players from en-Nai’me (village)!”
And all the children came together “Goalkeepers and defenders, midfielders and forwards, they held each other upward and straightforward.” And these “heroic numbers” protected the tree: “‘We’ll defend you, and the last olive tree’ cried the defenders in the land yet to be free!”
As the woodcutter wakes up from his nap, he looks up to the tree, and it is heavily loaded not just with olives, but with all the neighboring Palestinian villages’ young children…
Writing about her earlier book, Bashi noted “They’ve tried to burn ‘P is for Palestine’ in New York, but look at the world response to our precious little book—written with love for Palestinian and all other innocent children around the world, and published only thanks to a long/modest crowd fundraiser.” Now, there is a push to publish “Counting up the Olive Tree.”
Many different emotions welled up in me as I looked at the forthcoming book. I thoroughly enjoyed the uplifting storyline, as well as the cheerful illustrations. “Delightful” kept coming up as the most appropriate adjective. But also, empowering. Inspiring. I absolutely loved the objective statement, a matter-of-fact sober observation nevertheless pointing towards a hopeful outcome, “the land yet to be free.” And mostly, I was grateful for Bashi, who not only did not cave in after the hate she received upon publishing “P is for Palestine,” but instead went ahead and authored another book for us.
The children’s number book should be available in January 2019. I have pre-ordered a few copies myself, as part of the fundraiser that makes this much needed venture possible. You can too. So we can save our olive trees, in the land which shall be free.