Safia Shah on Releasing Seed Bombs of Ideas
'You’ll have been waiting for this, I reckon,’ says my Somerset postman, gingerly setting a mangled, blue and yellow Afghan Post box on the doorstep.
Picking it up, I just have time to check the posting date, before the package splits open, spewing its precious contents out on the doormat: cartoon eyes goggling at me from the front covers of Speak First And Lose, Dari and Pashto edition.
The postman is right. I’ve been waiting several months for this moment. It’s my first physical copies of the dual language edition, produced by ISF in collaboration with the brilliant US organisation, Hoopoe Books.
Gathering up the spilt copies, I’m suddenly back at my childhood home, Langton House. My brother, sister and I are passing around refreshments to guests. We’re in the drawing room, rather than the kitchen, so I know that today’s visitors are pretty important.
Circulating with our trays, we’re careful to dodge our dad’s arms, as he throws them out while expressing himself. If he catches the coffee cups, it won’t be the first time that crockery becomes a casualty of him talking with his hands.
All those years ago, when we were on our best behaviour in the drawing room it wasn’t for the cakes, or the sandwiches, but for the stories.
We knew that if our father remained uninterrupted, he would illustrate whatever point he was making with one of our favourites. It might have been The Tale of Melon City, or Little Ant, or if we were really lucky, The Horrible Dib Dib.
Almost half a century later, and decades after my father’s death, these stories remain. And I am preparing them to go out and win young hearts, all over the world.
By gifting as many copies as possible, ISF is helping my brother, sister and I reach children experiencing lives of all kinds. Some seated as we were back then, well-fed, safe and secure in our homes. Others living in conflict zones, or refugee camps, or facing adversity in a number of other ways.
I am hoping that what I am able to offer is what I received as a child, as the result of these stories: the world viewed temporarily through different eyes.
It is view I share with filmmaker and women’s rights activist, Gulrukh Khan. Having spent over 25 years tirelessly working to get women’s voices heard, she believes that there’s a desperate need for books that enable women and children to expand their critical thinking:
‘Books can help to broaden the reader’s perspective and enable them to feel that there is hope in the world,’ She tells me, ‘As well as offering some kind of common norm, that may not be easily obvious in their world – where hardship is prevalent.’
Of course it is a cliché to say that editing and producing these stories is rewarding. But is hard to know how else to describe the feeling when one reads feedback like that recently received, from Mahdi Housaini. He is an Australian Afghan, who has for the past few years worked at an orphanage in north-eastern Afghanistan.
Here he describes the scene when ISF’s shipment of children’s stories reached the orphanage:
“When I opened the box of ISF books, they were all huddled around it and peering down, waiting and finally seeing. I gave each one of them a single book. For every single one of them, it was the first time they had received a book as a gift, for themselves, to own and keep. I saw the world around them cease, as they opened the pages and ran their small fingers across the lines, not blinking. I witnessed pure wonder. They held on to their books, even after they finished. I did not see a single book on the ground.”
What makes things even more poignant for me is that I can picture these children. Their faces are the faces of the refugee girls to whom I taught English, when I lived in Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, in my late teens.
I can hear the girls laughing as we exchanged stories to practise their vocabulary. Their headscarves and mine slipping to floor of the DDT-painted classroom, as we shriek in mirth at anecdotes highlighting how they had traded their Kabuli apartments for the muddy refugee settlements, housing hundreds of thousands of displaced.
My refugee students of the 1980’s and today’s Afghan children receiving our books are very similar.
As Sally Ornstein of the Hoopoe non-profit has told me countless times: these kids need books to help them make sense of a crazy world.
Four decades of production of Idries Shah children’s stories is so impressive, that Hoopoe has set the bar pretty high, in terms of quality and distribution. What’s more, it was this imprint (distributed in their millions), which showed me the importance of illustrations that travel to both east and west.
The second I saw Daby Zainab Faidhi’s artwork, I knew that I had found a kindred spirit. Growing up in a world where the west so often portrays people from the east in harem pants and curly-toed slippers, it’s incredibly refreshing to find an illustrator who stresses the similarities between cultures, rather than the differences. Daby’s illustrations are beautiful, handcrafted portrayals, which bring a sense of the extraordinary to everyday life.
Currently based in LA, Daby started her journey in war-torn Iraq as a young child, using art as a means of expression and self-discovery. To this day, each page she illustrates is an intricate ‘set,’ in which scenes of a story are played out. From the tiny paper candles, which she cut down to denote the passage of time in Speak First and Lose, to the real-life miniature clay teapots she made for the teahouse page in The Onion, Daby is a visual storyteller.
As you might imagine, someone willing to painstakingly make props such as these has a huge amount of patience. Although I fear I may have tested this patience when I changed the format on her, mid-project, in order to create what we later came to call: ‘a world in a lap’.
This relates to the large format, landscape orientation of the children’s books. It’s a format we switched to when we realised that many of our child readers, in countries such as Afghanistan, would be opening our books in their laps, while seated on the ground. The wide format allows us to completely fill their field of vision, hopefully temporarily transporting them into another world.
The use of such a format is largely thanks to the impeccable design eye of graphic designer Rachana Shah, my sister-in-law, who has dedicated endless hours (most of them unpaid) to producing books that are truly beautiful to behold. From the project’s outset, it was Rachana who was determined that books reaching orphans, refugees and street children would be as visually pleasing as those bought at full cover price.
Not long after I found Daby, my brother Tahir introduced me to the work of Indo-Canadian illustrator, Prashant Miranda.
Prash worked in children's animation in Toronto where he designed and developed children's animated shows for TV, before becoming a full time artist and illustrator. It’s this background to which he attributes his whimsical style.
For my part, it is only recently that I’ve realised why I was instantly drawn to Prash’s depictions of my father’s storybook characters.
Looking at his work in The Horrible Dib Dib, I can see that he has the ability to make the characters’ personalities shine out from the page. I have never seen anyone get so much expression into the features of an ant, or of a pompous doctor, or of a thief, except perhaps, Richard Williams, whose friendship and illustrations were a part of our childhood.
Loved by my brother, sister and I for his depiction of Mulla Nasrudin, and by much of the rest of the world as the creative genius behind Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams was a master when it came to character portrayal. In addition to these lasting impressions, he goes down in Shah family history – both as an eagerly awaited visitor to Langton House, and as the person upon whose trousers my sister Saira threw up, aged four or five.
Our mother – who was practical – and at times rather direct, reprimanded him for coming to the supper table in dirty trousers, before realising her mistake, and offering to do his laundry.
There are so many family memories woven into these stories that I find myself constantly smiling at the memories they spark, and at the warm welcome they have received.
ISF’s legendry husband and wife team Holly and Agustin, tell me that the read-online children’s books are receiving more hits than any other Idries Shah title on the Foundation’s webpage. And I’m constantly hearing from parents and grandparents, who say that their children and grandchildren ask to read them, time and time again.
I put this down to the power of the illustrations and to the wry humour, which my father so often used to get his message across. It makes the children’s stories timeless, and accessible on so many different levels.
I think it is fair to say that while he was a thinker, and a philosopher, my mother was a doer, and a ‘force to be reckoned with’. Faced with misery, hardship, or injustice, she never turned a blind eye. She rolled up her sleeves and prepared to make a difference.
And she taught us to do the same.
I like to think that by sending the stories we grew up with back to Afghanistan, we are attempting to follow her lead.
The job is made easier by reports such as that recently sent to me by someone who shares my mother’s first name, Kashfi Khan.
Many years my mother’s junior, Kashfi Khan works in London, teaching children who speak English as an additional language. Having grown up with the works of Idries Shah, she routinely draws upon the children’s stories in the classroom. Here, she has found a strong practical application, listing a number of ways she has seen children’s confidence grow, upon reading stories such as The Lion Who Saw Himself in the Water, Tale of the Sands and Neem the Half Boy. She’s even managed to improve her pupils’ behaviour by reading them The Man with Bad Manners!
The positive effect a story can have on a child comes no surprise to me; I have seen with my own children, how a story dropped into a situation at the right time can make a point, without the meltdown that a reprimand might cause. Moreover, I like to think that these stories are a way to connect my children to their grandfather -- almost as if he were still here to narrate these family favourites himself.
Kashfi’s long relationship with the work of my father, is shared by two of our other illustrators, Carol Betera and Laetitia Bermejo Castelnau.
Laetitia, or ‘Leti’ as she is known in the small village in Mallorca, where she now lives, describes herself as ‘the fruit of the union of a Spanish university professor, escapee from Franco's régime and a French woman, escapee from Parisian bourgeoisie’.
No wonder, then that her illustrations have a style and humour all of their own. As a child, Leti loved the etchings for Robinson Crusoe and Sherlock Holmes, and the work of (among others) Richard Scarry, Quentin Blake, and later Ralph Steadman. When I ask her to describe her own style she dodges the limelight with a two-word answer: ‘Scruffy, perhaps?’
Carol Betera describes the works of Idries Shah as helping her find her way ‘through the forest of English upper-class, Communist, atheist, academia’ in which she was brought up.
Now living in Dublin, Ireland, she believes there’s a strong possibility of reaching women, and men, through the children’s books, such as The Story of Mushkil Gusha, for which she has produced page after page of beautifully hand-drawn and hand coloured drawings.
Carol likes to think that for children facing hardship, these stories teach on many levels; humour and resilience, hope and healing.
It’s a view not that dissimilar to my own.
Sitting at my desk, surrounded by the memories that working on these stories provokes, reading the feedback from illustrators, new readers and project co-ordinators such as Mahdi Housaini, I like to think of these stories as little seed bombs of ideas and alternative ways to see the world.
They will grow when the time is right.
Re-wilding our imaginations with the possibilities of what could be.
Published on: Nov 01, 2020