Nour’s existence really is an unhappy one. She has no family and no home. And she’s haunted by an anonymous ‘annoying voice’ that draws attention to her sorry lot, jeers at her and won’t leave her alone. She thinks about escape from her story but isn’t sure whether she has the courage to try, or whether it will be possible.
Nour is a character in a book. Or more specifically, in a book within a book. In Nour’s Escape, there are two main settings: a house where a young boy, Adil, lives with his mother, and the pages of the storybook that Nour inhabits. She needs a reader to wake up her world and to provide her with the opportunity to escape from what is written. For, we learn that when the reader stops midway through a line, the story goes to sleep, while Nour remains wide awake. Adil is the reluctant reader turned bookworm. He may not play a large part in the book in terms of presence, but his role is essential. Adil’s home also provides Nour with an insight into a different environment. One fascinating episode sees Nour looking out of the book, crying in fear at ‘two suns and a white cloud with three enormous arms’. We are later told that these are in fact two lights and a ceiling fan on Adil’s bedroom ceiling.
I enjoyed many aspects of this longer-style picture book, and the unique perspective is one of them. Nour herself is a character of contrasts – fearful, determined, sad, happy, trapped, and carefree. Her sorry existence and struggle to escape from her story for a better, happy life are certain to generate empathy for her. Especially when author Abir Ali brings in the ‘annoying voice’ that derides Nour throughout the story for being a scaredy-cat and a coward, and that states (rather callously, I think) that ‘there is no escape’. You’ll be willing Nour to get away from that voice and that world. Whether she succeeds or not is for you to find out!
The illustrations are also unusual. Gulnar Hajo uses a muted palette of white, black, yellow and brown. Tower blocks jostle for space against a sky lit by a large crescent moon, while in the foreground we can make out the shape of a girl sleeping on the ground. Bread loaves and rolls take on the form of giant planets as Nour hides in a local bakery. Nour again is in the foreground (although her head is not featured). The reader’s eye is immediately drawn to her stomach, which is centre page; it is filled with young birds chirping to be fed. Hajo uses fuzzy textures throughout which – whether deliberate or not – seems a clever technique to use in a story set in unknown territory between two worlds.
Nour’s Escape is a book that can provoke all sorts of interesting discussions, about happiness and sadness, determination and cowardice, books and stories. Yes, stories and the characters that live in them! Should these characters be able to escape their story for a better, happier life? I think so. In fact, I’m tempted to take up author Abir Ali’s suggestion to write a new story for Nour.
Nour’s Escape by Abir Ali, illustrated by Gulnar Hajo, translated from the Arabic by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp (Darf Children’s Books, 2019)
Abir Ali is an Omani writer with a number of children’s books to her credit.
Gulnar Hajo has published more than 20 books for children. She is also the co-founder with partner Samer Kadri of Bright Fingers Publishing House and Pages Bookshop – actually two Arabic-language café bookshops that cater to Arabic-speaking refugees and immigrants in Amsterdam and Istanbul. Born in Damascus, Syria, she is now based in Istanbul.
Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp is a British literary translator. She has translated a number of children’s/YA books from German, Russian and Arabic into English. She is a passionate advocate for international children’s fiction and is co-editor of the World Kid Lit Month blog and Twitter account.