Monday, February 26, 2007

Iraq: Around the World With Your Library Card

Today, we journey to Iraq. I'll tell you about stories old and new from that ancient country. Using our excellent World Book database, we can learn the following facts about Iraq.

Capital: Baghdad
Official languages: Arabic and Kurdish
Population (estimated): 30,958,000; 67% urban, 33% rural

If you read further in the Iraq entry, you can learn about the country's history, government, climate, and economy.

The CIA has a great World Factbook that's also very useful for finding information. I like using it because it's written in a matter-of-fact and easily understandable way. It's not easy to get the full picture of what 437,072 square kilometers is (total size of Iraq), but when we read that the country is slightly more than twice the size of Idaho, we get a better grasp on the area. You can also learn about Iraq's environmental issues, ethnic groups and religions in the country, branches of the government, health issues, and lots more.

Now, on to the stories!

The history of Lugalbanda: The Boy Who Got Caught Up in a War is as fascinating as the story itself. Lugalbanda is one of the oldest stories in the world. How old is it?

It's older than the Koran.
It's older than the Christian Bible.
It's older than the Torah, or Jewish Scriptures.
It's older than the Greek and Roman myths.
It's older than the Epic of Gilgamesh.

It is believed that the story of Lugalbanda was told more than 5000 years ago. The story was passed from storyteller to storyteller, and was one of the first stories to be pressed into cuneiform, about 4000 years ago.

However, as tribes, governments, and war came and went, the clay tablets disappeared. The tablets were recovered 150 years ago, and Lugalbanda was only translated in the 1970s.

Kathy Henderson learned of the story in 2003, and began the painstaking task of adapting the story into picture book form, until it was finally published in 2006.

Who is Lugalbanda? His name means "little prince," and he was a great king of Uruk and Sumer (now modern Iraq). Lugalbanda was not born to be king; he is the eighth son of eight sons, and lives in Uruk. The city of Arrata is nearby; Arrata has fine artisans and craftsmen as well as precious metals and stones.

What does Uruk have? Not much, compared to Arrata. King Emmerkar of Uruk is very jealous of Arrata, and plots war against that city, in hopes of stealing its riches and making Uruk as grand as Arrata. Maybe even grander!

Lugalbanda joins his brothers in war, but he falls very ill. Impatient to overtake Arrata, King Emmerkar demands that Lugalbanda be left behind. His despondent brothers reluctantly agree, but not without providing him with essential and provisions.

With the help of the fierce Anzu bird, Lugalbanda rejoins his brothers, and is called upon to beseech the goddess Inana (remember, this is before the monotheistic religions came into existence) for assistance. Inana promises to help them, but only if King Emmerkar vows to help Arrata rebuild and ensures the safety of the craftsmen, artisans, and riches.

The Anzu bird, who showed another side to his fierceness when Lugalbanda shared his possessions with his family, is rewarded with statues and the telling of this story, which is in remembrance of the Anzu bird.

And Lugalbanda? He becomes the next king of Uruk.

Henderson's "Notes on the Story" and preface give further information on the the Sumerian state of Uruk and the story's evolution. Henderson brilliantly keeps the air of the oral tale alive in her retelling. This would make a great read aloud (the story is divided into chapters). Lugalbanda's determined and epic struggle is masterfully told through simple yet engaging text and illustrations that invite you to examine the details in each illustration.

As with the Little Red Riding story, there are hundreds of Cinderella stories found in many cultures of the world. We have The Golden Sandal: A Middle Eastern Cinderella Story, told by Rebecca Hickox and illustrated by Will Hillenbrand. Think about the basic elements of the Cinderella story.

-A widowed father with a lovely daughter.
-Widowed father remarries.
-Mean stepmother, accompanied by one or several unfortunate looking and acting daughters, forces lovely daughter into indentured servitude.
-A party is announced in honor of a highly ranking person.
-Lovely daughter isn't allowed to go, but stumbles upon a kind spirit who assists her.
-Lovely daughter is a big hit at the party, dashes off, loses footwear.
-Footwear is found, a search is conducted for owner.
-Stepmother insists her unfortunate daughters try on footwear, but to no avail.
-Lovely daughter is usually in hiding, is discovered, footwear fits, happily ever after.

Right? Well, the Iraqi story, as do all Cinderella stories, does have the basic plotline, but with several different and delicious elements.

Our heroine is Maha. Maha is indeed very lovely; her stepmother and stepsister are, indeed, quite the opposite. A very special celebration is to take place; the daughter of the master merchant is to be married, and all the townswomen are invited to sing, watch the bride's arms and feet be painted with henna, and to celebrate a very handsome match. The mothers of the local unmarried men will be there, eagle-eyed as they scrutinize the local unmarried women. Of course, the stepmother has no intention of releasing Maha from her chores so she can attend the party.

So, where's the fairy godmother? No fairy godmother here; instead, it's a little red fish that had been saved by Maha. In gratitude, the little red fish promised Maha that it would grant her any wish at any time. The little red fish bequeaths her finery fit for a bridal celebration, complete with golden sandals. She is also told that she shall sit next to the bride's side.

Maha arrives, sits next to the bride, and is the talk of the party, including the talk of the stepmother and stepdaughter. How curious it is that the young woman in her finery looks so much like Maha? But it can't possibly be Maha, not when she is downtrodden with her chores and her plain clothing.

Maha remembers that she must leave the ball before her stepmother leaves, as insisted by the little red fish. Off she dashes! In the meantime, she loses one of her golden sandals.

Along comes Tariq, the brother of the bride. Like the other Cinderella tales, he inexplicably becomes obsessed with finding the owner of the sandal. Tariq's mother assures him that she will find the young lady, and goes off in search of the sandal-less girl.

She checks the families in the grandest houses in town. Naturally, of course. This is a very fine golden sandal.

On the second day, she checks the middle class families.

On the third day, she checks the homes of the fishermen.

Maha is hidden in the oven (don't worry, it's not on), Tariq's mother comes to call...and you can figure out the rest of the story. But there's one more obstacle Maha and Tariq must overcome before they are happily wed, thanks to the no-good stepmother.

Rebecca Hickox's notes give further information on how she found and adapted the story, and we are gifted with an illustrator's note from Will Hillenbrand, which is not often found in folktales.

Children will enjoy the familiarity of the story, while being intrigued with the very distinct differences of the Iraqi Cinderella story. This folktale also retains the air of an oral tale, which lends itself to a satisying read aloud.

Finally, we have The Librarian of Basra: A True Story From Iraq, written and illustrated by Jeanette Winter. There is also a story behind this story, and Winter tells us the journey in her author's notes. This has the simplest reading level of the three picture books, but its subject matter is not simple at all, as it takes place during the war in Iraq. It's the story of Alia Muhammad, the librarian of Basra who saved 70% of her library's collection (which included many ancient and rare books) before the building burned to the ground. Winter introduces the reader to Basra's library, which is like any other library in the world, except for its importance to Iraqi history. People go there to read, to learn, to meet their neighbors and maybe talk about their reading and the issues of the day. Lately, the talk has been of war, war, war. Alia is worried about the library's collection, and pleads with the governor to allow her to move them to a more secure place. Being denied, she begins to bring books back to her home for safekeeping. Finally, the worst happens, but not before Alia and her friends save most of the books.

Alia's story is told simply and effectively through Winter's text and illustrations. The urgency of Alia's mission and the teamwork involved in saving the collection comes across quite clearly. We also have Alia's Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty. Alia's Mission is told in a graphic novel/cartoon strip style book and is suitable for older readers.

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